Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are stories that we tell ourselves that aren’t necessarily true. They are distortions or negative interpretations of ourselves, what is happening around us, the past or the future, based on our beliefs and assumptions. ANTs happen very quickly, without conscious processing or reasoning and we accept them as normal. We may not even be very aware of them in the moment.
We all have negative thoughts. In fact, our brains are wired to protect us by paying more attention to the negative experiences in our life than the positive ones (this is called negativity bias). But when our brains get into the habit of repeating these negative thoughts over and over they can have an adverse impact on our wellbeing and make difficult situations even harder to deal with.
We can’t control our thoughts or completely eliminate these ANTs, but the good news is that once you understand them, you can practice spotting them and choosing your response to minimise their effect. Even when we have difficult thoughts, they don’t have to be in the driver’s seat of our lives!
Types of automatic negative thoughts
Here are 10 types of automatic negative thoughts that you may be able to recognise in your own life.
1. All or nothing thinking
Thinking in extremes and absolutes. Something is 100% bad or 100% good, right or wrong.
- I won’t be able to do this perfectly so I may as well not do it at all.
- I don’t have time to do it all, so I won’t start.
- I’m not perfect, so I’m a bad mum.
- No one ever listens to me / helps me.
Jumping to the worst possible conclusion.
- I’m going to make a fool of myself and no one will talk to me.
- I was late to work, I’m going to be fired.
- If I haven’t turned the iron off the house will burn down.
- The pies are cold. This will ruin the party.
Seeing a pattern based on a single event or one piece of evidence.
- I forgot about that appointment. I never do things right.
- She cancelled our catch up this afternoon. She doesn’t like hanging out with me.
- I didn’t exercise today. I’m so lazy.
Only paying attention to certain types of evidence and ignoring the rest. Thinking that some evidence doesn’t count.
- A few people said I looked great but one person said my outfit was “interesting”. I look terrible today. Why did I choose this outfit?
- My week’s holiday was awful because the show we wanted to watch was sold out.
- My husband doesn’t help around the house (only remembering the times he didn’t help and ignoring the times he did).
Taking responsibility for something that’s not your fault. Thinking that what others do or say is related to you or in reaction to you.
- He’s in a terrible mood. It must be my fault.
- My child is struggling at school. I’m a terrible parent.
- My child is has fallen asleep so we can’t meet up. I’ve ruined our plans.
6. Emotional Reasoning
Mistaking feelings for facts. You believe that negative things you feel about yourself must be true because they feel true.
- I feel like a failure so I must be a failure.
- I feel stupid. I’m so stupid.
- I’ve been out of the workforce for so long, I’ve got nothing to offer so I won’t apply for that job.
7. Mind Reading
Making assumptions about other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours without checking the evidence.
- You think that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check if this is true.
- She thinks I’m a terrible mother.
- I can tell by the look on her face that she’s bored with our conversation.
- He’s going to be so mad about this.
8. Fortune Telling
Anticipating an outcome and assuming your prediction is an already-established fact.
- I’ve always been like this, I’ll never be able to change.
- We had a big fight. This relationship is going to fail.
- Everything will be better when I lose weight / have another baby /get a new job / earn more money.
9. Should statements
Using should statements to set up unrealistic expectations of yourself and others. Very little flexibility.
- I should always be calm with my children.
- My husband should know what I need.
- I should get everything done before sitting down to relax.
- My in-laws should be helping us more.
Deflecting personal responsibility for your actions on others. Believing that your problems are never the results of your own actions (or inaction).
- It’s your fault I was late this morning.
- It’s your fault we can’t communicate properly.
- The children made me lose my temper.
Which of these automatic negative thoughts have you noticed in your life?
Our thoughts are not always true
It’s easy to assume that our thoughts are the truth, but that is not always the case. It’s important to examine our automatic negative thoughts and see if they are true and supportive or not.
Our thoughts influence our feelings and our feelings influence our actions and choices. If we are getting hooked by ANTs, we are likely to experience more difficult emotions and choose actions that take us away from the life we really want and the mother and woman we want to be. This lack of alignment creates more difficult negative thoughts and we can find ourselves in a challenging cycle.
You are not your thoughts. You are a person having your thoughts and you get to choose which thoughts you focus on and keep.
What to do with your automatic negative thoughts
The first step is to practice noticing your automatic negative thoughts. Observe them without judgement. Trying saying to yourself “I notice I’m having a thought that…” This creates a separation between you and the thought and can diffuse some of the emotional intensity around it.
Then you can choose how much attention you want to give them.
You may choose to simply let them be there in the background, like a radio playing while you go about your day. If this is your choice, your thoughts are not in charge of your feelings and actions, they are simply background noise. You notice them, accept that they are there, and bring yourself back to the present to direct your attention to wherever it is needed.
You can also choose to rewrite the thought. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is this thought true? (what evidence is there?)
- Does this thought bring me closer to the life I want and the person I want to be?
- Is there another way of looking at this? What would a close and trusted friend say to you about this? What is a more balanced, alternative thought?
For example, replace “I should always be calm with my children”, with “No one is always calm. I’m doing my best and learning to look after myself better so I can feel calm more often.”
Are you ready to practice this, lovely?
Which ANT do you want to focus on first and what will you do when you notice it come up for you?