Updated: Aug 28, 2018
Have you ever been stuck in traffic and thought, “The rest of my day is going to be totally ruined now.”? If someone cuts in front of you in the line at the supermarket, have you thought, “That person has no respect for anyone around them” and then felt annoyed for the next hour and a half? Or have you ever made a suggestion to the boss at work, who then brushed off that suggestion a little too easily, and thought to yourself, “I must not have very good ideas,” or even worse, “I’m not smart enough to do anything right.”? Little thoughts like these run through our minds every single day, and often they are running so quickly, that we don’t even notice them. These thoughts, called Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs, are a natural part of the human experience. Despite their size and speed however, they carry the potential to wreak havoc on our state of mind.
The phrase “automatic thoughts” was initially used by a prominent psychologist named Aaron Beck. In an article written for the Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, Beck posited that in conversations about mental health, our “internal communication system,” or our automatic thoughts, go unreported or undiscussed. Beck believed that the majority of people don’t even notice the
inner dialogue that goes on in their minds; that these silent conversations are so-called “blind spots” in all of us. Given the complexity of our everyday lives, our penetrating sensory experiences, and plethora of distractions, the fact that we are not tuned in to our thoughts is unsurprising. But regardless of whether or not we notice, “People have automatic thoughts that they use to broadcast ideas to themselves,” Beck wrote. Often these internal broadcasts are negative communications about others, about the world, and about ourselves, and unfortunately, they affect our mental health in unproductive ways.
What do ANTs look like?
Dr. Daniel G. Amen, psychiatrist and author of New York Times best-seller Change Your Brain Change Your Life, writes about nine different categories of ANTs:
1.) Thinking in “Always or Never” terms. For example, thinking or saying, “You never listen to me,” or “I always have to do everything” are inaccurate statements and generally do not produce positive outcomes.
2.) An example of Focusing On The Negative would be if you have done well at something 9 times in a row, and on the 10th you fail, you focus exclusively on the one failure and not on the nine successes. Failing to look at the entire picture and refusing to celebrate the positive can certainly lead to issues with mental health.
3.) Fortune Telling occurs when you predict a bad thing is going to happen. Unfortunately, these predictions are particularly powerful, as they often become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, if you believe your partner is going to react negatively to an upcoming conversation, you will enter that conversation in a position of defense, before anything has even happened.
4.) Mind Reading. This ANT occurs when you believe you know what another person is thinking. Common examples include, “I know that person doesn’t like me,” or “That person thinks I’m immature,” without any evidence that this is the case.
5.) Thinking With Your Feelings. For example, when you “feel like a failure, “ or “feel stupid,” without questioning that feeling. However, feelings often do not reflect the truth, so it is important to look at the whole picture in these situations.
6.) Guilt Beatings most often appear in the form of “shoulds”. Examples include, “I should have done better on that exam” or, “I should spend more time with my family”. Guilt is a powerful feeling, and may cause a person to do things they do not want to. Rephrasing a “should” with “I want to” may help to rewrite this ANT.
7.) Labeling is when you think of yourself or another as a “jerk”, “arrogant”, “stupid”, or “ugly” for example. Labeling can have negative effects because it unconsciously lumps that person into a negative category (along with everyone else you have set in that category).
8.) Personalization occurs when you understand an unintentional event as having personal significance. For example, feeling responsible for something bad that happens to someone else, or believing that someone didn’t answer your phone call because they were mad at you. Most things in life are out of our control and have little to do with us. Remembering that reality can help to combat personalization on a daily basis.
9.) Blame occurs when a person is unable to take responsibility for the outcome of their actions. People who blame often think or say, “This wouldn’t have happened if you…” or “It’s your fault that…” Blaming can be harmful because it makes you a victim of circumstance and as such, unable to right your wrongs.
As Dr.Amen notes, “Negative thoughts cause you to feel internal discomfort or pain and they often cause you to behave in ways that alienate from other people.”
The good news is that there are a few techniques that you can use to help combat these pesky ANTs.
A Mindfulness Approach
Several experts who treat anxiety and depression have reported that mindfulness is essential in treating mental health problems. The theory is that once we are mindful or aware of our thoughts, we can track their frequency, and attempt to adjust them as necessary. One method Beck used to track his patients’ ANTs was a wrist clicker; each time a patient articulated a negative thought, they activated the clicker on their wrist. By the end of one patient’s session, they had clicked more than 100 times, seeing just how frequent their ANTs occurred. This technique brought an awareness to the patients ANT’s
in a way that they had not previously recognized. Although wrist clickers are no longer common in treatment, using a thought-record to record the number of ANT’s you have in a day (or even an hour) can be helpful in gaining awareness.
Once you have an idea as to the frequency of your ANT’s, the next practice of mindfulness involves the observation of your ANT without judgment. As Dr. Elizabeth Hoge of Harvard Medical School writes, “If you have unproductive worries, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently. You might think ‘I’m late, I might lose my job if I don’t get there on time, and it will be a disaster!’ Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that -- a thought.'”
Occasionally, when you are experiencing particularly detrimental ANT’s, changing the thought from a negative to a positive can also prove beneficial to your mental health. For example, instead of thinking, “I’m ugly…. “ change that thought to another element of your character or appearance that you like, for example, “My eyes are beautiful” or “I am a great friend”. With practice, your automatic negative thoughts can become automatic positive ones, and eventually transform your outlook on life.
ANT's can be pesky, quick, and hidden little creatures that produce big consequences in your life. The next time you have a few minutes in your day, pay attention to your inner dialogue and ask yourself this: What are you hearing? And how positive does it sound?
For more information about ANT's and techniques to combat them, please reach out to a mental health professional in your area.