A constant inner dialogue runs through your mind on a daily basis. Our minds don’t place any value on the content of these thoughts but does weigh them by volume. Unfortunately, research shows that humans have an inherent negativity bias that shapes perceptions about a variety of tasks and psychological situations.
This bias often creates intrusive and repetitive negative thoughts commonly referred to as Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). A baseball player who repetitively tells himself that he is “no good” or “letting his team down” every time he makes a fielding error is being bitten by ANTs.
An ANT is an intrusive idea or theme that often accompanies considerable negative emotion. The aforementioned baseball player likely leaves the field feeling frustrated, tense and apprehensive after making errors simply because of the feedback loop playing in his brain. The truth is that these thoughts rarely contain any validity.
Negative thinking can affect performance as well as overall health. Considerable evidence exists that negative thinking and negative emotions contribute to increased inflammation via a release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can make individuals more susceptible to illness and injury and slow healing.
Automatic and repetitive negative thinking also can affect the amount and quality of sleep. Research has shown significant deficits in college students who engaged in chronic negative thinking patterns.
Common Thought Patterns
Identification of your thinking patterns and uncovering ANTs is helpful in the reduction or elimination of these cognitive habits. While somewhat similar, these thought patterns fall into certain categories:
- Overgeneralization is a skewed thought process where one negative event is extended beyond that single event. For example, being late to work produces thoughts like, “I can’t seem to get anything together; I’ll never be successful.”
- Filtering is a bias toward only negative feedback. “My boss thought my report was good except he said I needed to check a couple numbers. He probably thinks I’m incompetent.”
- Emotional reasoning is mistaking feelings for facts. For example, when someone “feels fat,” they automatically assume that they are overweight.
Strategies for Tackling Negativity
Do you ever have thoughts like these? Let’s take a look at a few strategies to change your cognitive approach and your health for the better. While these thought patterns may have some commonality, solutions are not necessarily “one size fits all.”
- Mindfulness entails having an awareness of what you are thinking and feeling and beginning to look at thoughts and situations as just that. Thinking “I am worried” or “I am embarrassed” is a first step. I work with patients to teach them to accept feelings as they are and refocus on the task at hand in that moment.
- Decentering acknowledges that we have negative thoughts, but we also have ones that are positive and neutral. We can learn to choose which thoughts to attend to and which ones don’t matter. Put the more helpful ones front and center while decentering what doesn’t actually belong. I suggest keeping a journal and reviewing the meaning, or lack thereof, of thoughts on a certain subject.
- Restructuring recognizes an ANT or negative idea and disputes its validity; basically finding evidence or lack thereof for this belief.