How many times didn’t we get all caught up in negative thoughts that put us in a down spiral that can last for hours, days or even weeks? We tend to identify so much with that inner voice that criticizes and punishes and end up acting and think in negative and self-punitive ways. Be it a colleague that made a mean comment or a spouse that hurt our feelings, we tend to ruminate on those events thinking it would make our life easier, when it just makes everything worse. The first step in making our life easier is realizing we are not our thoughts, which is a huge realization in the process of deidentifying with thoughts and engaging with them.
Thoughts influence our emotions, feelings and behaviors. Irrational thoughts lead to dysfunctional negative emotions that can be toxic and can affect the wat we live. Thoughts can lead to anxiety, anger, depression, guilt and hopelessness, and influence our overall well-being and the way we interpret everything that happens in our lives. As soon as we realize we are not our thoughts, we have the option to take a step back and choose to think about the thoughts that are helpful, and turn away from those who are not helpful.
Automatic thoughts can be positive (realistic, goal oriented) or negative (distorted, unproductive and work against us achieving our goals) that can really turn any sort of situation into a negative one.
Negative automatic thoughts can hide under different truths we are telling ourselves, such as:
All or nothing thinking
People tend to see things in black and white, and this usually turns out wrong. When it comes to reality, everything comes in different shades and being realistic of the good and bad sides of a situation can be a real help of not overgeneralizing the events (if something bad happens, you won’t jump to the conclusion that everything is wrong).
Overlooking the positives
Rejecting positive experiences and maintaining a negative belief even though it is contradicted by your everyday experience, or not enjoy a positive experience due to the belief that something bad will happen right away.
Jumping to conclusion
Whenever a stimulant similar to one that triggered a negative experience appears in the anxious persons’ reality, they will jump to conclusion that it’s a never-ending cycle and something bad will happen without checking all the facts. It’s important to always take a step back and check all the facts before feeling that you are a slave of this never-ending cycle.
Having unrealistic expectations of yourself and others and being rigid in your thinking. This often results in feeling guilty because you haven’t achieved what you “should” have. Language also includes “must” and “ought”.
Taking responsibility for something that is not your fault, or seeing yourself as the cause of a negative event that has nothing to do with you.
How to challenge the never-ending cycle of automatic thoughts:
Develop awareness of your thoughts
Develop the skill of identifying and listening to the negative messages you give to yourself. Writing a journal of your automatic negative thoughts may be an effective way to do this.
Evaluate your thoughts
Once you become aware of the ANT evaluate and challenge it. Ask yourself: “is it helpful to think this way /does it serve me?” or “am I being realistic?” This is really important as you will form a new habit of not feeling threatened by the thoughts and asking this as soon as you identify a new unhealthy thought will make you feel you are more in control.
Look for evidence
Is there any evidence to back up or discount your thoughts? Are you focusing on the negatives and ignoring other information?
Search for alternative explanations
Is there another way of looking at the situation, or are there other explanations? Are you seeing things from only one perspective? When you are so intensely caught up in your thoughts, it’s important to take a step back and see if you are seeing things from more perspectives or if you are trapped in one. Ask yourself what the other perspective is you could see the things from and make that perspective as objective as possible, as if a friend was speaking.
Put thoughts into perspective
Is it as bad as you are making out? How likely is it that the worst-case scenario will happen? We like to think about all the scenarios to feel as if we have it covered if that will happen, but truth is life never happens as we think it will. How many times didn’t you think about all the things that could go wrong and all the things you considered actually went right, but the one thing you didn’t even consider went wrong? This is just to prove that you have no control on all the circumstances, and trust that if anything happens, your wise self will be there to guide you find the best solution in that future moment.
Focus on what you do want.
Your conscious mind can only hold one thought at a time, so shift your thinking to what you do want. Are you feeling jealous and think of all the scenarios this could actually be true? If that’s the case, focus on how you would like things to be and what is the evidence the best case scenario could be a possibility too.
Be persistent as with any skill, interrupting ANT’s may take time and practice to master.
Even though it requires hard work and discipline to replace old negative patterns with more adaptive ones, patience and self-compassion will be your main guides throughout this journey. Praise yourself for all the efforts you are making and don’t put yourself down if sometimes you will still get caught up in thinking and ruminating. In order to make the process easier, you can use different distractions techniques. Whenever you feel as if you are ruminating, it seems that only two minutes of distracting yourself will help you forget about your overthinking. You need an activity that requires your full attention – might be a puzzle or writing an important email, so you can focus on something else and resist the urge to ruminate on a certain thought for hours.
According to research, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. So you’ll need to practice this until it becomes automatic. Don’t worry if you fail sometimes, and don’t let that discourage you. Two months of practice mean more than a lifetime of pain and hopelessness. And don’t forget, do not believe everything you think.