We construct a psychological model of the world based on the meaning we make from our experiences and interactions with our surroundings. As a result of this we naturally base our expectations about what will happen in the future on past experiences. Bruce Lipton (2006) discusses how ‘young children carefully observe their environment and ‘download’ the worldly wisdom offered by their parents directly into their subconscious memory’ which results in the parent’s beliefs and behaviour becoming their own.
Your brain is as absorbent as a micro fibre towel between the age 0 and 6 years old and lacks the ability to critically evaluate any negative messages you might be exposed to, so they become lodged, deep in your subconscious as absolute ‘fact’. Negative experiences such as feeling like you missed out on attention because you were the middle child or having a parent that is difficult to connect with on an emotional level can lead to internalization of negative thoughts such as ‘I am not good enough’ that form part of a subconscious narrative about yourself. Traumatic experiences in childhood can also lead to the storage of negative messages and these internalized ideas may then act as barriers to you fulfilling your true potential later in life because they can hold you back from putting yourself out there and going for it. For example, you might not apply for that job because that niggling voice inside your head is telling you that ‘you aren’t good enough’ so there’s no point in even trying.
These subconscious thought processes are called automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and do not underestimate them because they have the ability to have a huge negative impact on your daily functioning. It is actually becoming apparent that the way that we think has an impact on our physical health. A study by a group led by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison linked negative thoughts to a weakened immune system response (2003). They looked at the activation of the left prefrontal cortex and found a positive correlation between the amount to activity in the frontal lobe and the strength of immune response. Davidson says,
“emotions play an important role in modulating bodily systems that influence our health. We turn to the brain to understand the mechanisms by which the mind influences the body.”
Another example of the mind-body connection is the numerous studies of the placebo effect where if a participant is told that they are taking a particular drug, when in fact it is a sugar tablet, their symptoms improve more than we would expect to see by random chance. In other words, the way that you think has a big impact on the way that you feel but it is possible to flip automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) to positive and the first (and most important) step is to start to notice when you are having them. Yes, it’s that simple! You just have to start to notice when these negative thoughts pop up and challenge or question these thoughts.
There are different types of ANTs that are useful to know:
Everyone has been guilty of filtering at some point. This sneaky cognitive distortion involves concentrating on the negatives while ignoring the positives. Also known as selective abstraction, this twisted malaise will lead you to ignore any information that contradicts your (negative) view of the situation.
Say you apply for that job but don’t manage to get it. This leads down the thought process of concluding that we will never find a job so there is no point in applying for any more, I might as well sign on and be done with it! This cognitive distortion is called overgeneralization and involves coming to a negative conclusion based on a single event or one piece of evidence and can cause a lot unnecessary emotional pain.
Black and white thinking is a mindset that things are either right or wrong, good or bad. This type of thinking does not leave room for any grey area. This is a common human experience and is most prevalent when one is under stress and feeling anxious. Sweeping generalizations and can lead to self-sabotage and block you from reaching your goals because they don’t allow human fallibility and the potential to make mistakes.
Your mate Steve is in a shitty mood today. It must be something you said- it’s obvious he doesn’t like you. This is an example of personalization or in familiar terms- taking things personally. This thinking assumes that somebody else's behavior is in some way a reaction/related to you is an easy trap to fall into. Truth is that 99% of the time people are reacting to their own shit and they are too involved in that to even notice your impact on their day (sad fact but true!).
Mind reading is making assumptions about other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours which in reality is pretty difficult to do unless you are a medium or savant! It is easy to let your thoughts run away with themselves and construct an elaborate picture of what you believe to be someone’s motivations. This type of rumination can almost be quite addictive on some levels and it can unwittingly become your most comfortable state of being.
Emotional reasoning is a tricky one to start to notice because you may feel like a failure or that you are ugly and because the feelings are so strong you take this as fact. You feel a certain way so it must be true. This cognitive distortion makes you conclude that your emotional reaction proves something is true, regardless of any contradictory evidence.
Catastrophizing is a common cognitive distortion where you have an irrational thought that makes you believe that something is far worse than it actually is. It involves predicting a negative outcome and then jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome does happen it would be a catastrophe. For example, you are worried that you won’t pass and important exam so you then conclude that if (when) you do fail you will never be success in your life.
‘Should’ statements are not helpful. This includes ‘ought’ or ‘must’ because they set up unrealistic expectations of yourself and others. These rigid rules do not allow flexibility of thought and lead to inevitable disappointment. Other ANTs include Fortune telling- anticipating and outcome and assuming it is an established fact. Magnification and minimalisation are the tendency to exaggerate the significance of negative information or experiences and overlooking the significance of positive information or experiences.
How to deal with those pesky ANTSs!...
Luckily there are techniques that we can learn to challenge these automatic negative thoughts and reduce the anxiety and stress that they cause and this should result in improving your mood. The first step is to try to become aware your thought process. Ask yourself “What is going through my mind” or “What is upsetting me?”. This can be tricky to begin with and might take a bit of practice but once you get the hang of it it’s like riding a bike!
The next step once you have got the hang of noticing: Try not to indulge that nasty little voice in your head! “But how?!” I hear you say, well here are some techniques:
1. Challenge it – Just because you are thinking it doesn’t make it true.
“Is this thought helpful?”
“Am I being realistic?”
Consult this list and see if it one of the common ANTs!
2. Look for evidence- Search for alternative explanations:
“Am I being inflexible with my thinking?”
Try to step back from your initial reaction and think about how likely it is that the worst will happen.
**Remember that the only thing we can change is the present moment- Stressing about what might happen in the future or what has happened in the past is wasting your energy and taking you away from enjoying what you’ve got in the here and now.
3. Re-focusing- This important final step involves consciously moving your thought process away from your negative programming and choosing constructive instead of destructive thoughts. Once you have developed your inner awareness you can choose to deliberately change your thinking. You can question the reasoning behind your negative thought process and come up with a more constructive view.
Below is a quick example to illustrate:
Situation: Your partner said that they were going to ring you after work but they haven’t
⬇ ⬇ ⬇ ⬇
How you feel: Worried, Upset, Low
Automatic Negative Thoughts: He doesn’t like me, he is seeing someone else!
Identify the ANTs: Am I catastrophizing and mind-reading?
Challenge the ANTs: Maybe they finished late or perhaps they forgot.
What would I say to a friend in a similar situation? “They’re probably still busy at work or knackered after a long shift. Stop stressing, they’ll ring you when they can.”
Costs of these ANTs: Feeling anxious and suspicious of partner.
How will I feel about this in 6 months time? I’ll probably look back and laugh about it.
Is there another way to look at the situation? They’re probably just busy and will call soon.
Now it’s up to you. Go away and practice!
Become the watcher of your thoughts and take back your power.
I hope this is of some help. If you have any questions or thoughts don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lipton, B. (2005) The Biology of Belief. Hay House Ltd., London, UK.
Rosenkranz, M., Jackson, D., Dalton, K., Dolski, I., Ryff, C., Singer, C., Muller, D., Kalin, N.,
Davidson, R. (2003) Affective style and in vivo immune response: Neurobehavioral mechanisms PNAS 100 (19) 11148-11152;