I have dealt with anxiety and panic attacks for most of my life, but it is only recently that I have realized how automatic negative thoughts nurture this anxious state of mind.
Automatic negative thoughts don’t just affect those who suffer from panic and anxiety, they are typically associated with people who are depressed.
It is thought that there are generally two types of negative thinking:
- Depressed negative thinking
- Anxious negative thinking
Those who think in a depressed negative way will typically think:
- I’m no good.
- There’s no point to life.
- I will never get better.
Those who think in an anxious negative way will typically think:
- I’m going to die.
- Life is too dangerous.
- I can’t cope.
It is hard to stop automatic negative thoughts from entering your mind, and more often than not, we are unaware that we are even thinking them. They seem to just appear out of nowhere and we are unable to control them. But that is the point, you are in control of what you are thinking.
The first step to getting better is to identify the situations when the automatic negative thoughts appear and to recognize what is triggering them. You might even already know.
For me, having a social phobia, my automatic negative thoughts start whenever a person approaches me that I have not met before. My inner voice immediately pipes up and starts to warn me that that I have to get away and quickly before they engage me in a conversation where I’ll be trapped.
In order to deal with automatic negative thoughts you have to realize that they are:
- Not true
- Not helpful
- Make it hard for you to move on
- Keep you feeling depressed/anxious
You might think that as these thoughts are automatic, there is nothing you can do, but this is not the case. You have to start with the fact that you are the one who is thinking the thoughts in the first place. Once you understand that, then you can begin to change or stop the process.
There are many ways in which you can achieve this.
The best way for me was, as I found it really hard to actually stop the thoughts from appearing, imagining they were not in my head but outside it. This meant I could either let them in or shut them out.
It took some practice, but the minute I sensed a negative thought starting, and with me, it was always preceded with “Oh my God, I have to get out!” At the ‘Oh my God’ stage I would state clearly and with conviction – “NO!” and keep stating this until the negative thought had gone.
Other ways to change the automatic negative thoughts are to add words onto the thoughts, so for instance, someone who is depressed and might say:
‘I’m no good.’
They can change it to:
‘I’m no good now, but I can always get better.’
‘There’s no point to life.’
Can be changed to:
There’s no point to life if you don’t live it to the full.’
Dealing with automatic negative thoughts
Automatic negative thoughts can appear to be overwhelming at first. They can make you feel anxious, sad, depressed, shameful, angry or even guilty. They are not nice to have, but they can be used to help change your mood and behavior.
Take note of when they occur, where you are at the time or what you are feeling your location, situation, try and pinpoint your exact emotions. Become alert to the negative thoughts and use either techniques to stop them in their tracks or change the narrative.
See how these changes you make affect your mood and behavior when you are faced with the situations or moods that normally make you depressed or anxious.
Don’t expect miracles overnight. Changing your behavior, especially automatic thought processes, takes time and practice, but you’ll find in the end that it is worth it.
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