Automatic Negative Thoughts: What is it and How to Stop It
“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all!” This may be great advice, but your mind won’t take it. Many people are barraged daily by automatic negative thoughts. These thoughts are in response to everyday events and can be debilitating.
What are automatic thoughts?
Negative automatic thoughts are conscious and subconscious. They’re words, images, and mental activities that arise in response to some trigger. The thoughts are based on negative beliefs they hold about themselves. Some thoughts are less impactful or harmful than others, but automatic negative thoughts can be self-defeating, irrational, and uncontrollable. They can negatively affect careers, relationships, and progression through life. The thoughts may only be controlled by challenging the beliefs upon which they are based.
One study has estimated that we think more than 6,200 thoughts per day. Some thoughts are helpful in that they are the means that we interpret events in our lives and process the input from our senses. If we paid attention to each thought that enters our minds, we would never get anything done. Fortunately, our brains only make us aware of the thoughts evaluated as significant.
For any event or daily experience, there is an overwhelming amount of data in the environment. So our brains sift out the stuff we don’t need and only make us aware of the aspects we need for interpretation. The more salient details give us what we need to determine whether our experience has been good or bad and what we want to remember. Of course, this is an oversimplification. We take a massive amount of information from our experiences, and our range of interpretation is broad and multi-faceted. Based on our interpretation of our experience, we give an emotional response - we feel something about what has happened.
What can go wrong
Most times, this system works well. But there are times we ignore the important information and focus on the less essential parts. This is problematic because we assign meaning to what we focus on. Further than that, what we give meaning to can become a core belief we hold about our situation and ourselves. For instance, consider a person making a presentation at work. While they receive approving nods from almost everyone present and positive compliments afterward, this person focuses on the one person who did not seem to enjoy their presentation. They come away from the experience with feelings of failure, disappointment, and even embarrassment.
This is called negative filtering, and you can see how harmful it can be. This person has effectively filtered out all but the negative bits of the experience - completely ignoring the majority positive. If they are asked about the presentation later, they will only recall the negative parts. The assigned negative meaning can lead to low self-esteem, fear of speaking before an audience, or loss of confidence.
The automatic negative thoughts become triggers to intense emotions. It is common to feel extreme adverse emotions like sadness or anger without being aware of the thoughts that led to them. An effective strategy to begin the work of understanding our feelings is to become mindful of those automatic negative thoughts. It’s necessary to be aware of the thoughts and realize that they are determining how entire experiences are interpreted and not the actual events.
For instance, imagine two employees who give presentations. They each receive identical feedback - their concept and ideas were great, but they needed to include more long-term projections in their presentations. One employee becomes discouraged, angry, and eventually resentful. They withdraw and don’t interact with anyone for the rest of the day. The other employee feels elated and sees reason to celebrate with co-workers after work.
The first employee’s automatic thoughts told him that his efforts were unappreciated and that the supervisor was just trying to find fault with his presentation. This makes him angry and resentful, which leads to negative behavior toward co-workers.
The second employee, however, heard the feedback in a more balanced way. He felt good about the areas he did well but equally felt glad that he just has to remember to add in the long-term projections next time. He leaves the meeting feeling affirmed and helped by the feedback. His emotions are higher, which makes him feel like celebrating with friends.
The progression goes from the situation to automatic thoughts to feelings and, finally, to behavior.
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How to identify automatic thoughts
To identify automatic thoughts, we have to engage in metacognition. Metacognition is the practice of thinking about your thoughts. When faced with a situation and the subsequent emotion that arises, we can identify our automatic thoughts by writing down what we’re thinking at that moment. Often, we find that we have made huge assumptions and broad statements that are unlikely to be true. For instance, although your business isn’t doing well right now, it’s unlikely that every person who has ever met you thinks you’re a failure. This is irrational.
Eliminating negative thoughts
Eliminating negative thoughts begins with an awareness that you have them. Consider doing the following:
- Keep a journal to record your negative thoughts.
- Remain aware of your thinking.
- Try positive affirmations to replace negative thoughts. It takes time, but eventually, you can change your beliefs about yourself.
Restructuring core beliefs
Just as people have automatic negative thoughts, others have automatic positive thoughts. This means that when they experience something, their underlying belief is that things will work out for them or that they are capable in this situation. This leads to positive emotions and behaviors. So the way to eliminating negative thoughts is to replace them.
In addition to the method above, consider Cognitive Restructuring (CR) :
- Identify your automatic negative thoughts. Consider keeping a journal to record them.
- Identify the cognitive distortions within those thoughts. Cognitive distortions are overgeneralizations, black and white thinking, catastrophizing, or personalizing.
- Rationally dispute the negative thoughts using Socratic dialogue. This entails breaking down the logic and basis of the thoughts.
- Rationally challenge these thoughts. Build a case for yourself (with evidence) to show that these thoughts are unfounded.
Another component of CR is generating alternative ways to look at situations. Like in our example of the two employees, instead of feeling attacked by feedback, the second employee determined to add the projections next time. Instead of relying on the same old negative assumptions in situations, consider creating an alternative thought - one based on reason, logic, and a little kindness to yourself.
If automatic negative thoughts are inundating you, first know that there is help. Recognize the thoughts, see that they are based on beliefs you are holding about yourself, and do research to find a solution that works for you.
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