Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) can contribute to negative emotions and influence your perception of yourself and the world.
You get all wrapped up in negative thoughts, you don’t even realize it, and you believe them- they mess up your life. They make you anxious and depressed.
Automatic Negative Thoughts
Let me tell you a story about the invisible thing that fuels anxiety and depression. And then I’m going to teach you some skills to stop letting it control you and how you feel.
One day, when I was super pregnant, super tired, exhausted and overwhelmed with parenting three little kids and growing a human inside of me, I had to go to Home Depot to fix something in the house. I pulled into the closest parking spot I could find, but then realized that the truck in the stall in front of me was sticking out into my stall a little bit so I couldn’t pull all the way in, twisting around to back out and find a new parking spot seemed exhausting with my huge belly, so I checked that my van was in the lines and went into the store. Got what I needed, came back out, and when I got to my van found that someone had left a business card on my window. But it wasn’t a regular business card, it said “You suck at parking” It said “F&*# you. “Learn to drive you idiot” and gave me the finger.” Now normally I would have shrugged this off, but not today. Not at 8 months pregnant. Why are people so cruel I thought? Poor me, I’m having a bad day and this mean person needed to come make it worse. What’s their stupid problem, they took the time to print out “you suck at parking” business cards. I definitely cried a little on the way home. (I blame that on the pregnancy hormones). So why was I upset? It would be easy to say that I was upset because someone put a mean card on my window. But that’s not true.
Our emotions don’t actually come from the situation, they come from how we think about the situation. I wasn’t upset because of the piece of paper, I was upset because I interpreted that card to mean that people were attacking me, that I was surrounded by a mean and dangerous world. That they were out to get me, and this triggered the stress response. The fear response. Without even realizing it, I interpreted that situation as threatening. This was thanks to Automatic Negative Thoughts.
We all are deluded when we think that the situation, the trigger is what makes us feel a certain way. You see, there are hundreds of possible ways I could have interpreted this situation. If I had thought “Meh, they’re just probably an unhappy human being with nothing better to do, whatever.” I probably wouldn’t have cared much, maybe felt a little calloused. If I had thought “Maybe they’re working on their anger management, they put the card instead of slashing my tires” I would have felt relieved. And if I had thought “Maybe they’re actually a chronic people pleaser who is doing therapy homework to be more assertive and this is the way they’re learning and practicing“ I would have felt happy for them, proud of their accomplishments.
How we think about a situation, directly impacts how we feel.
Automatic negative thoughts are involuntary, habitual thoughts that focus on negatives, exaggerate problems, or predict disaster.
The impact of ANTs is profound; they can distort your perspective, trigger strong emotions, and influence behavior in harmful ways. For example, you might not go to a social activity because your ANT says “You’ll have a terrible time” and that can lead to missed opportunities, isolation, and a cycle of feeling worse and worse.
In this post, you’ll learn about the automatic negative thoughts that fuel the anxiety cycle and lead to feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. You probably aren’t even aware of the types of thoughts that take you there, so we’ll explore them. And then we’ll talk about both a CBT and ACT approach to dealing with them.
We Are Swimming In Automatic Thoughts And We Don't Even Know It
I saw this meme the other day: My top 3 assumptions when the doorbell rings: 1. Murderer 2. Police telling me that everyone is dead. 3. That book I ordered on positive thinking
Isn’t this how anxiety works?
But usually it’s on a much quieter, chronic scale. We are swimming in automatic thoughts that we don’t even know are there. People have between 6,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day. We are constantly making assumptions about what others think about us, about some imagined future that we are worrying about, about the catastrophic outcomes that are sure to occur.
The anxiety cycle- Perceived Danger
You’re most likely not anxious simply because of your genes; you’re anxious because you perceive the world to be a dangerous place, and you perceive the world as a dangerous place because you’re buying into automatic negative thoughts. When we look at the anxiety cycle, there’s some kind of stimulus that we interpret as being dangerous, and that’s what triggers that FFF response. The vast majority of the time, it’s the interpretation that makes us believe we’re in danger. But most of the time we don’t realize that. We think that it’s the stimulus that made us feel a certain way.
Viktor Frankl said “Between the stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our responses. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” (Frankl, 1946) And he would know- he survived the nazi concentration camps when his family didn’t. He survived the horrors of WWII as a jew, and managed to find purpose and meaning and goodness in life.
When we feel fear and anxiety, we usually don’t realize that we are looking through the lens of our automatic negative thoughts. And these thoughts are often fearful.
These thoughts are like we’re walking down the street in Las Vegas and there’s people selling stuff- You need a new phone, you probably need an all you can eat steak dinner, you definitely need to see this show, buy a hotdog, here, want some porn? It’s a normal experience to run across people selling stuff, and it’s a normal experience to have random thoughts pop into your head. But, most of us don’t realize that we are buying into these thoughts. It’s like we don’t have any skills to brush them off and instead feel the need to talk with each salesperson, listen to what they say, and buy what they’re selling. This is what is called “Buying your thoughts” it’s when you believe them and invest in them, without even questioning if you want what they’re selling.
And you don’t even realize it.
We don’t even realize that the reason we’re feeling the way we are is because of how we’re thinking, because these thoughts are just like the air we breathe.
Let me share some examples with you. I asked my audience what their ANTs are, here are some of their responses.
- it’s my fault for 100% of everything going wrong/being tough/difficult to handle, and then I shame myself.
- I’m such a failure
- I’m all alone. I’m not lovable. I’m broken
- “I won’t be able to sleep again at night and won’t be able to sleep at all in my life.
- It is too much , i can not handle it and it will break me down
- this depressive episode is never going to go away.”
- “Something good has just happened, so something devastating is about to happen next.”
- “Why am I like this? Why am I like a terrified chihuahua while other people around me are relaxed and don’t seem to anticipate doom at any moment?“
- “They’re just saying that to sound nice” about any praise/compliments.
- “I always mess things up”
- “No one really cares about me”
- “I’m never going to be good enough”
- “Everyone is judging me right now”
Notice how you feel in your body after hearing those. Honestly, when I read them, I felt a little heavy, a little discouraged, a little anxious. So what do you do about your ANTs?”
Step one is getting super clear on what these thoughts are. In the next segments we’re going to talk about some Kung Fu with your thoughts, but for now we just have to take these thoughts from being invisible little whispers to being concrete thingies.
You’ve got to catch yourself thinking your worst thoughts
Workbook Go back to the section in your workbook where you wrote down the situations that you tend to feel anxiety about. Now we’ve got to explore the thoughts behind them.
I’m going to give some examples-
Real or Perceived danger?
(exaggerate this to it being a life or death situation)
I found a nit (lice) on my child’s head after playing with a friend’s family.
-She’s going to hate me
-She’s going to tell others how gross I am
-She’ll never hang out with me again, no one will
-I’ll be rejected from my village and die of starvation.
-(connection is so important that our brain links rejection directly to our survival response)
I can’t fall asleep
-I’m never going to get enough rest
-I’m going to be tired all day, -I’ll snap at my kids, and I won’t be able to work very well
-I’ll ruin my relationship with them and they’ll cut me off when I’m older. (And I’ll die of starvation)
My boss gave me negative feedback at work
-I’m such a failure
-I can never do anything right
-He’s such a jerk
-I’m never good enough
-I’m going to get fired
-My husband is going to be disappointed in me
-We’re going to run out of money and die of starvation
I feel anxious/depressed
-This anxiety is never going to go away. This depression is never going to go away
I will feel miserable forever and my life is ruined
How are these ANT’s impacting your life? How do they impact how you feel?
Step 2- Thoughts aren’t facts- your brain makes stuff up all the time.
OK, so you spend your day with these thoughts swirling around your head. And they trigger the anxiety cycle. And the crazy thing is, you don’t even realize it. So…How are we going to take another step toward stopping the anxiety cycle? The second step is realizing that your brain is a word machine, it literally just makes a ton of thoughts all the time. Its job is to crank out tons of random thoughts, so your job is to create a little space between you and them.
There are two approaches to managing Automatic Negative Thoughts- CBT and ACT:
And I think they both have merit. So let me teach them to you.
The classic approach to negative thoughts is from CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. With CBT-It’s like mental judo – you learn to spot these thoughts, challenge them, and swap them out with thoughts that are more balanced and realistic. You’re basically engaging with the thought in order to choose something more helpful.
So if we take the “My boss gave me negative feedback at work” The classic CBT grid is to say “Are these thoughts accurate? “I’m such a failure” “I can never do anything right” and replace them with thoughts like “sometimes I succeed”, “I often do things right. Last week, I did a great job with that problem we had with widgets” And you bring to mind alternate facts. “I messed up, but mistakes happen”. “I’m going to learn new skills to solve this. I can get through this, I always do”.
It can be a really simple but powerful way to stop buying these negative thoughts and replace them with something more accurate or helpful. There’s a worksheet in the workbook to help you go through this process.
OK, let’s talk about the second approach- what ACT calls Cognitive Defusion
With Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, you don’t fight the ANTs. Instead, you learn to sit with them, notice them, but not let them boss you around. You’re also encouraged to take actions that line up with your personal values. This can give your life a sense of meaning and purpose, making the ANTs less powerful.
So if anxiety is believing the salesmen, freedom isn’t arguing with the salesmen, debating with them. Sometimes when we argue with our thoughts, or spend a lot of time ruminating on them or analyzing them, we end up just overthinking and feeling more confused and miserable than ever. This is called Cognitive Fusion- we might buy the thoughts, or we’re so engaged with our thoughts that we don’t have space to be present, to live our life, we just keep going in circles, like in a debate with a salesperson. Even if we aren’t buying what they’re selling, we also aren’t going where we were going.
Freedom is knowing where we are going when we’re walking down the street. Knowing what we do and don’t want. And choosing to engage with a salesman only if it helps us. To do this we need a little space from the salesmen, this is called Cognitive Defusion.
Instead of debating our thoughts we need to learn to notice these thoughts, separate ourselves from the thoughts and then choose which thoughts are going to be helpful for us to live the life we dream of. Maybe I want to buy that churro, but I definitely don’t want to see that show in Las Vegas. We need to get better at distancing ourselves from the salesmen so that we can evaluate what is going to be helpful for us.
You can just simply switch from saying ‘I’m such a loser!” to saying “I’m having the thought that I’m a loser” instead of saying “I hate feeling anxious” say “I’m having the thought that I hate feeling anxious” you create a degree of separation from your true self and your word machine.
There are some really practical ways to learn to do this.
From my perspective both CBT and ACT approaches can be quite helpful. I’ll often try the first (salesman “No thanks, I don’t need a vacuum cleaner. No, I’m not a complete loser. ) and then if the thought is super persistent- I’ll just let it be there and redirect my attention, essentially ignoring the salesman and walking on. “Dear mind, thank you for that thought, but it’s not super helpful.” …now, back to what I was doing. Just allowing that thought to be there, and redirecting your attention back to your valued direction or the present moment.
OK, so just to summarize, Automatic negative thoughts are the habitual, involuntary thoughts that our word-machine of a brain pops out all the time. They’re often false, unhelpful and they directly contribute to anxiety because that perception of danger, that interpretation that a situation is dangerous or threatening triggers the fear response. You can learn to notice these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts) , challenge them, and replace them with something more helpful for you. Whether that’s a more realistic thought or a shift in attention to what really matters to you, automatic negative thoughts don’t have to control your life.
If you want to learn more about breaking the anxiety cycle in 30 days, click the link below.