Automatic Negative Thoughts

Learning about the concept of automatic negative thoughts is a key piece of what I teach in my anger management and domestic violence programs, where so many of my clients come in the door blaming someone else or some situation for their behavior.

And where I start is I ask my clients to tell me where they see me, and where they hear me, and I ask them to point to the space in the universe where they can feel touch, smell, and taste.

Usually they report that they see me across the room, and I explain that that is not the case.

We humans have our experience (note that word) of vision in the visual cortex, inside out skull.

Almost always though, my clients will acknowledge that yes, vision and hearing exist only inside their heads, but if only I listen, I will understand why they did what they did, and why the behavior was justified.

But it does not take too long for them to get it and grudgingly acknowledge that they cannot pick up a fork to eat a piece of cake until their brain makes that happen, and the process begins with a thought or some inner dialogue describing the sensory data they are processing, (Oh, that pie looks good!) and then I begin to teach that they are responsible for every thought they have since it exists only inside them.

As that light begins to dawn, we can begin to teach about automatic negative thoughts, their characteristics, and how to dispute them, or change the thought to get rid of the unpleasant feeling.

We can even begin to move into how to create automatic positive thoughts to feel good, simply because they can.

Victim Automatic Thoughts

Automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) have some characteristics which I will list in a minute, but the usual kind I hear is the victim kind, where someone else made me do it, so my response to that is to teach a bit from the old TA or Transactional Analysis model about the Karpman Drama triangle.

When I have a thought interpreting someone's behavior as aggressive or mean, I have two options, I become the innocent victim seeking a rescuer from the persecutor.

The other person cannot be an individual who is feeling angry, I have transformed them into a persecutor, and as a victim, I get to do a couple of neat things like take revenge for which I am not responsible. After all they made me do it.

This entire process of interpretation of visual and auditory and facial expressions happens in 1/25th to 1/18th second.

Not much time to stomp out the ANTs, is it.

The good news is we have done it tens of thousands of times. The bad news is that if I do not argue against my ANTs, and my behavior breaks down, usually there are serious consequences.

So what are the characteristics of Automatic Negative Thoughts?

1. They often appear in shorthand.

2. Automatic thoughts are almost always believed. They seem to have the same believability as direct sense impressions, which they are not.

3. Automatic thoughts are experienced as spontaneous.

4. Automatic thoughts are often couched in terms of "should, ought, or must"

5. Automatic Thoughts tend to 'awfullize."

6. Automatic Thoughts are relatively idiosyncratic.

7. Automatic Thoughts are persistent and self-perpetuating.

8. Automatic Thoughts often differ from your public statements.

9. Automatic Thoughts repeat habitual themes. The theme of angry people is victimization types of thoughts, anxious thoughts focus on the theme of danger, depressed people focus on the theme of loss and the past, for example.

10. Automatic Thoughts are learned, and can be unlearned.

Stomping on the ANTS

If you want to change how you feel, then you need to change the thought.

Dr. Daniel Amen uses the analogy of stomping on the ants, which simply means becoming aware of the thoughts and disputing them, a key component in both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy.

That disputation process will require a quick brain which has done all its brain fitness work, and is well nourished and well rested.

If you are interested in combining a number of these tools together, increasing your speed at identifying automatic negative thoughts, and increasing your speed at relaxation, then the HeartMath evWave tool is an excellent resource for you.

Automatic Positive Thoughts

The one that still works for me is "Gratitude is the Attitude!"  When I catch myself creating automatic negative thoughts, I remember what I have to be grateful for, and within a moment or two, I have a cascade of memories for kind gifts I have received, smiles, compliments, synchronicities, ect. and I feel humble.  

ANTS and my brain being what they are, I usually need to rinse and repeat several times to really put the ANTS to bed, and get my biochemistry back to homeostasis.

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Would You Share Something That You Are Grateful For?

When I was beginning my personal growth journey, a wise person told me that when I was feeling resentful or afraid or sad, that I should remember the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was ready to feel better. That phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.

Would you share what you are most grateful for? Your story could be just what another person is searching for to renew themselves? Thanks.

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