I cannot do this…
This will not work…
They do not like me…
I am not good enough…
Nothing will ever change…
Sounds familiar? At some time or another, we have all found ourselves thinking negatively about ourselves, a situation and even others. This tendency, becomes even more pronounced in situations where we are feeling ill, pressured, hurt or disappointed in ourselves, or by the actions of others. Negative thinking can cause us to feel stress, fear, worry, anxiety and trigger irrational behaviors as well. So, if you are struggling with this tendency, you are not alone. The inclination to have negative thoughts is normal and is a part or our natural fight or flight response.
Recently, I was doing some research for a presentation on stress management and came across of the concept of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) and how these negative thoughts contribute to increased stress and anxiety levels. According to an article written by Dean Alban, the average human brain does a lot of thinking, up to 70,000 thoughts per day. (1)And the majority of these thoughts are negative and seem to pop up out of the blue. (2). Our thoughts regulate how we feel about ourselves and our surrounding environment. Positive thoughts make us feel good and negative thoughts can dampen our spirits and leave us feeling down. But, oftentimes, our thoughts happen so quickly that we fail to notice them, and they can still unconsciously affect our mood and attitude.
In this COVID 19 era, when most of us are dealing with unprecedented levels of stress, the tendency to think negatively is greater than ever. This plays out in the simplest of interactions to the most complex ones. Our negative thoughts can stem from an unanswered call to a friend or loved one, or an unacknowledged text. Negative thinking can also be triggered by the language in an email you received from a supervisor/coworker, the tone a person used when speaking to you, your observations on how a situation was handled or just a gut feeling you have about something or someone.
Negative thoughts are even more prevalent when dealing with your own health issues of the illness of a loved one. While waiting for a diagnosis, it easy to become anxious and overwhelmed by the fear of a bad report. Anticipating the bad report or planning for the worst-case scenario, can contribute to even greater levels of stress, which can then undermine your immune system. With a compromised immune system, your body becomes more susceptible to illness and your health fails-thereby becoming a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. This is one reason that persons suffering from life threatening illnesses such as cancer, are encouraged to be hopeful and think positively while undergoing treatment.
I remember struggling with negative thoughts when I was trying to purchase a home here in the U.S. Though I knew what I wanted from day one, ( 3-bedroom townhouse with 2.5 baths, in preferred school districts) and how much I wanted to spend, the home buying process took me three years. For each of those three years, I would get pre-approved in January in preparation for the spring market. I would begin to look at homes around February or March. By end of summer, I was feeling dejected and ready to give up. Why? I would see homes that I really liked, put in offers and each would have been met with news from my realtor that, the seller had accepted a cash offer or someone else had lucked out in a bidding war. After losing out on many offers – negative thoughts and expectations led me to abandon the process for the rest of that year. I bought into the logic that it was not my time; it was a seller’s market; the area was too expensive; or maybe I should be looking for something less- like a 2-bedroom, 2 bath condo which was like my apartment.
Over this time, I struggled with frustration, doubt, and fear about whether I would be able to achieve this goal. I felt even worse whenever someone inquired about how the process was going. It got to the point where, my negative thoughts made me feel defensive about, as this was the one area where I felt I was failing and not making any progress. Fortunately for me, I had a few people in my comfort circle who kept encouraging me and nudging me to keep looking. Their advice would help me to reframe my perspective on the situation and eventually – it happened.
What You Can Do to Overcome Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)
Now, let me just state that I am not a counselor, nor am I a therapist. If you are struggling with thoughts of, depression, suicide or inflicting self-harm, please seek help. Seeking counseling and treatment is the best and bravest thing you could do for your overall well-being and mental health.
It is important to remember that negative thoughts in and of themselves are not bad. They can be cautionary, giving us cues and insights into the potential risks or factors we need to consider in deciding or embarking on a course of action. Negative thinking becomes an issue when, we spend most our time in that space and end up feeling depressed, dejected, and hopeless. Excessive negative thinking is never healthy for children and adults alike.
That said, overcoming unconscious/automatic negative thoughts will require intentional action on our part. So, how do we get a handle on these automatic negative thoughts to improve how we cope with the stressors in our life and improve our overall mental health and well-being?
1.Catch and stop the ANTs: To do this, you must notice your thoughts. Imagine for a second, how ants (Insects) work together in real life. Whenever I see an ant, there is always a couple more nearby. Imagine then, that negative thoughts operate similarly in your mind. Someone or something happens that triggers you. Your mind automatically has a negative thought, then another and before you know it, the downward spiral begins. To manage these thoughts, you first must catch the ANTs or begin to pay attention to your self-talk. Your self-talk reflects what you believe about yourself (See previous post) and the situations you have to deal with. Do you speak kindly to yourself about yourself? Your self-talk may be rational and helpful. Or it may be negative and not helpful. Minding your self-talk will help you to recognize your patterns and stop negative thoughts.
2. Challenge the ANTs: Back to my analogy about the ants, having caught the ANTs, look at it closely? Observe where it is coming from or what is triggering it. Does that one ant have others coming close behind. Just like you would not allow ants to overtake your food or home, you must find a way to stop the ANTs. So, for those negative thoughts, ask yourself- is this thought true? Is there evidence to back up the negative thought? Some of us are excellent story tellers, with an ability to either exaggerate or downplay situations. So, check yourself and your thoughts by objectively looking at the chances of whether what you are worried or anxious about will happen.
Many of us have talked ourselves out of amazing opportunities, because we have either been crippled by doubt and insecurities, entertained fear or gotten stuck in an offense. Find yourself some people who love you, believe in your dreams and always encourage and support you- especially when you cannot do it for yourself.
3.Get rid of the ANTS: Here is where you replace the negative thoughts crawling all over your head. The recommended approach is to replace negative thoughts with more helpful and positive ones. You can do this by reframing your negative self-talk and choose more positive way to look at it. Here is an example. I do online presentations all the time. If and when something goes wrong in the session (Murphy’s law), I am guilty of fixating on that one thing, instead of on the the overwhelming positive feedback I received. When I catch the ants (a.k.a notice my negative self- talk) crawling in my head, I challenge it immediately. I refer to the positive feedback I got and then I tell myself- your presentation was excellent and participants found it useful.
I also use this technique with my daughter, who sometimes struggles with negative self-talk. When she makes a mistake, she beats up on herself, generalize her mistakes and say things like – I always mess up. As soon as she says it, I ask her, is that true? Do you always mess up? After a brief pause, she sheepishly says no. I then ask her to reframe what she said to make it more positive and true. She then says something like, I messed up today. I can change my action and will do better next time. By doing this, her mood improves, she begins to feel better and she recovers from these incidents much more quickly.
So now, it is your turn to try it. The next time you find yourself thinking negatively or struggling with automatic negative thoughts, notice your self-talk, question it rather than accepting it and then get rid of it by replacing it with a more positive and healthy one.
Until next time, remember- It’s A Learning Life!