How to Stop Automatic Negative Thoughts (in 5 Easy Steps)
When it comes to your thinking, do you find yourself always thinking about the worst-case scenario? Are you wishing that you knew how to stop automatic negative thoughts from running your life?
Learning how to stop automatic negative thoughts has the power to completely change the way you see reality and the experiences you have.
We all have negative experiences in daily life. And with them come all sorts of negative emotions and unhelpful thoughts that seem to be automatic.
But, imagine if you understood how to stop automatic negative thoughts from controlling how you react to whatever challenges and obstacles life throws at you!
At Joyful Through It All, we believe that conquering negativity is important. Prioritizing growth, gratitude, and joy is the key to living the life you want to live, full of big goals and dream chasing.
And you can’t live the life you want to live if you are constantly falling victim to your negative automatic thoughts!
So, it is time to start shifting your thoughts away from the worst possible outcome. Let’s get started with embracing the positive thinking that you know you are capable of!
What Are Automatic Negative Thoughts?
As you may be able to tell, automatic negative thoughts (sometimes called ANTs) are a negative view of reality that shows up in your brain without you having much control over them.
They are a kind of negative self-talk that comes from within and they seem to be in your mind before you even realize that you are forming a thought.
Many times, automatic negative thoughts are unwanted thoughts that are false beliefs about reality. And when you give power to automatic negative thoughts, you risk heading into a downward spiral of negative thinking and negative beliefs.
You don’t always have control over automatic negative thoughts. But, if you find yourself feeling that you are responsible for your own negative thoughts, this can make you feel other negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety. This can lead to further common negative struggles with mental health.
Where Do Automatic Negative Thoughts Come From?
If you are looking to learn how to stop automatic negative thoughts, it is important to understand where they come from and why they happen in the first place!
Typically, these types of thoughts show up in response to some sort of event that happens and triggers them. This could be something that happens in the present moment, or it could be in response to one of your own thoughts that you find yourself thinking about.
Automatic negative thoughts can happen in many different areas of our lives and can range in intensity depending on the person and the situation. For example it could be:
- an email from a colleague that could cause you to react in an automatically negative way.
- your first thoughts when you realize that your dinner is slightly overcooked.
- the first thought you have when you realize someone got you a gift that you already have.
- your reaction to a diagnosis you weren’t expecting.
Regardless of the trigger, it is possible to learn how to stop automatic negative thoughts if you pay close attention to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Types of Automatic Negative Thoughts
There are many different types of ANTs that show up in people’s lives. Each person has their own neural networks that form their own unique type of thought pattern. But, there are a few common negative thoughts that we all can relate to.
Here are six types of ANTs that people tend to fall prey to:
- Mind reading: This is when negative thinkers make up what someone else is thinking before they have even shared their thoughts.
- Fortune telling: This is what happens when we predict only the worst possible outcome, even when there doesn’t seem to be evidence that it will happen. Often times we assume that our past experiences will repeat themselves.
- Guilt beatings: These thoughts tend to involve words such as should be, or have to. This is your inner critic making you feel guilty for not being enough.
- Negative labels: When you attach a label to something that brands it as negative without really giving it a chance.
- All-in or all-out: This is a type of thinking that struggles to balance the good and bad. Thoughts such as “I am either the best, or the worst” are common with this type of thinking.
- Thinking in absolutes: Believing that things are always a certain way or never a certain way. This can make us think that negative things will always happen.
Next time you find yourself facing negative thoughts, see if you can sort them into one of these types of ANTs. This will make it easier to shut them down!
Fighting Against Evolution
While it would be nice, positive thoughts are not always the first ones that come to mind. In fact, whether you realize it or not, most of the thoughts that enter your mind throughout your day are negative ones.
Your brain is a funny thing. Its main goal is to protect you from danger. And it does this by making up its own perceptions of reality to convince you that danger is everywhere. Your brain believes that if you are always on high alert, you should be prepared when something horrible happens.
Makes sense, right?
This ‘negativity bias’ is part of human nature that humans have inherited from our distant ancestors. Always being on the lookout for danger was a survival instinct that helped people survive. The people whose automatic negative thoughts told them to protect themselves tended to survive.
This explains why it can be so tough to shut out negative automatic thoughts. You are actually fighting against years of biological evolution that tells you to be a negative person!
The problem is that we tend to trust our brain when it attaches negative labels to our thoughts. Typically our first step isn’t to stop and question our thoughts when we have negative feelings.
But if you want to learn how to stop automatic negative thoughts, it is important to listen to and understand your brain. Your brain sends negative signals out to you so that you can take them and make sense of them. We aren’t meant to take each signal our brain sends us and act on it. If we did, life would be pretty chaotic!
Why Are Some People More Negative Than Others?
What causes someone to be negative? And why do some people fall prey to their negative thinking while others rise above it?
I will be the first to admit it: I am a worst-case scenario thinker. I have a talent for taking the smallest event and finding the doomsday scenario in it.
My negative thinking works hard to take over almost every single interaction I have throughout my day. Including the positive experiences!
By contrast, my wife is the complete opposite. Where I see bad things, she sees good things.
So what gives? Where the heck does she get all of her positivity from?
Well, some people are better than others at interpreting the signals that their brains send them. Or, from a growth mindset perspective, some people have more practice filtering out the negative signals from their brains.
What I have learned about myself is that I have a much harder time interpreting the negative signals that my brains sends. This makes me much more negative than my wife.
Here’s an example:
If I spend too much time working, my brain tells me to feel guilty for not being around to help with our kids. I then use my terrible mind reading powers to make up that my wife is mad at me for this. And I predict the future to assume that an argument will come from this – even when it never does.
This example shows how I let my negative automatic thoughts form my perceptions of reality. I use fortune telling to predict what is going to happen with no evidence that it is going to. My mind reading makes up what people are thinking. I have a bad habit of projecting my own negative thoughts onto other people.
So if my wife and I are each bombarded with the same number of ANTs in a day, why am I a more negative thinker? Even if most of your thoughts are negative, there must be some way of shutting them out, right?
And there is!
How to Stop Automatic Negative Thoughts: 5 Step Process
While I am a pessimist by nature, I am self-aware enough to know this about myself. And I work hard to change my attitude and grow out of these patterns every day.
I have learned to recognize that my brain wants me to believe that there is danger nearby when it sends me an automatic negative thought. But, instead of just accepting the negativity, I recognize that I always have a choice to stop and reflect on the signal to see whether there truly is danger nearby.
For how smart our brains are, they aren’t great at helping us understand whether the threat is real or not. So it is up to us to take these automatic negative thoughts and use our minds and our hearts to interpret what to do with them.
As a disclaimer, we are not trained mental health professionals offering medical advice. Instead, our aim is to share tips and strategies that have worked for us, and that we try to use to help us with our own negative thinking.
With that said, let’s get into how to stop automatic negative thoughts with an easy 5 step process. These are just a few helpful ways to shut down negative thinking before the downward spiral starts.
1. Be a Sceptic
The first step is to actively resist the negative thoughts that come into your brain. This takes a lot of practice because you probably aren’t used to thinking about your thinking.
Practice training your mind to stop accepting every thought, and start questioning why they are happening in the first place.
Argue with your thoughts. Challenge them. This will feel unnatural at first, but you will be surprised just how much you can uncover about your perceptions of reality!
2. Keep a Journal
Once you have learned to stop and question your negative thoughts, the next step is to start writing them down.
Keep a journal that collects all of your automatic negative thoughts from throughout the day. Write them down and pay close attention.
While journaling is normally used to help you intentionally focus on positive automatic thoughts, writing down negative automatic thoughts will help you look for patterns.
This can help you understand your negative automatic thought triggers and why you react the way you do in certain situations.
A major reason ANTs are so hard to tackle is because we feel like we have no control over them. Seeing your thoughts written down will help you recognize them when they strike.
3. Rewrite your ANTs into PETs (Positive Empowering Thoughts)
After you have your ANTs written down, you can walk away from your journal and come back to it with a fresh mindset to make sense of any patterns you notice.
The key in this step is to convert your negative thoughts into positive empowering thoughts (PETs). This is where you take all of the guilt beatings and shut them down.
- “I should be a better parent” vs. “I am working hard to be the best I can be”
- “I will never lose weight” vs “I can’t wait to go for a run and focus on my health tomorrow!”
- “Things never work out” vs. “I look forward to learning more about how I can improve”
Completing this exercise is one of the best ways to gain the benefits of positive affirmations!
4. Develop a Growth Mindset
So, you have started to recognize your thought patterns and converted some of your negative thoughts into positive empowering thoughts. If you want to learn how to stop automatic negative thoughts, the next tool you need to develop is a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is a way of thinking that helps you see the world as a place full of learning opportunities. Failure and struggle isn’t the end of the road when you have a growth mindset. Instead, these are learning opportunities that tell us how we can do better for next time.
Many of the negative thoughts we have are about our fears of the unknown, our fears of failure, or our fears of what others think of us.
The reality is, these are legitimate fears! Failure is part of real life, and it is scary. And your brain is right to send you automatic negative thoughts to let you know that danger is nearby.
Not knowing what is going to happen when you take a risk sucks. Failing sucks. Being judged by other people sucks.
But, when you recognize that there are growth opportunities when you step outside your comfort zone, these challenges don’t seem so scary.
So practice using a growth mindset to reframe your ANTs. Listen to your fears, but choose to move forward anyways with excitement for the learning opportunities that are right around the corner.
5. Practice Gratitude
If there is one thing I have learned about my own negativity, it’s that it cannot survive an onslaught of gratitude.
Gratitude reminds us that reality is not all doom and gloom. It helps us remember to balance negative and positive experiences rather than fixating only on the negative ones.
Next time you find yourself facing an unkind thought, find a quiet place, take a couple deep breaths, and write down three things that you are grateful for that day.
Don’t feel that you have to write something majorly life-changing. Anything that helps you lock in that blissful jolt of feel-good chemicals that comes from practicing gratitude will help keep negative thoughts away.
At their worst, our negative thoughts can turn into limiting beliefs that keep us from achieving greatness in our lives.
Negativity has a stronger hold on some people more than others. But, these five tips are positive ways to tackle negative thinking before the downward spiral starts.
Given time, and with practice, these simple steps can become a mental shortcut. You can learn to shut off automatic negative thoughts before you even realize that you are having them in the first place!
And before long, you will be back on your road to creating the life that you want to live!
Don’t forget to share this post with your friends and family on social media! If you know someone who could use help with their automatic negative thoughts, this blog post could be what they need to make a major change!