Reference: An article published by Harvard Health Publishing by Harvard Medical School
You can feel more balanced by reframing common negative patterns. You’ve just been laid off, and doomsday scenarios race through your mind in a frenzy: you’re an idiot who can’t hold down a job. You’ll never get another job. You’ll end up on the street with no way of supporting yourself.
This all-or-nothing way of thinking is an example of an automatic negative thought pattern (ANT). Thoughts like these, which comprise about a dozen categories (many overlap), compel people to interpret distressing situations in unbalanced ways without examining the actual evidence at hand. This can sap happiness if people learn to recognize and disarm these cognitive distortions.
Who are the people who are affected by automatic negative thoughts?
ANTs, the subject of decades of study and refinement, tend to strike when we are anxious or depressed. According to Jacqueline Samson, a psychologist at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, while most of us succumb to cognitive distortions like these occasionally, it only becomes a problem when done chronically or to extremes.
“They’re extremely common, and all of them can lead to a certain amount of misery,” she explained. “When people get into a negative state of mind, it’s really easy to remember all the bad things someone said or did to you, and hard to remember your successes.”
A sense of being stuck in extremes of thought
The above all-or-nothing ANT forces us to choose between the two extremes of good or bad, success or failure, with no room in between. The belief is that if you have failed, it is because you are wholly incompetent.
Two more typical ANTs to be aware of:
“Should” statements: You “should” be flawless because mistakes are unacceptable, so say the words. How things “should” or “shouldn’t” be is subjective. When you violate an invisible “should,” you feel guilty, angry, and resentful toward others who do the same.
Let’s say your grandchildren didn’t send you any holiday gift thank-you notes. How could they? You put a lot of effort into selecting their gifts. How unkind! You won’t be giving them anything else ever again! Your answer, however, is predicated on the widely held notion that people “should” send thank-you cards. These kinds of “shoulds” are typically presumptions, according to Samson. “Response intensity can be extremely high.” It might even strain your relationships.
Discounting the good: Perhaps you consider any happy development unimportant or the result of chance. For whatever reason, happy experiences don’t count.
For instance, your daughter may call to inform you that she will visit on Saturday night rather than make Sunday dinner as you requested. You don’t think about her coming on Saturday; all you can think about is how she’s not coming when you wanted her to. Samson explains, “You’re not noticing the ways your daughter is demonstrating her concern for you.
Why are you a victim of ANT?
We frequently sort information into categories and impressions based on what we already know to process it quickly. Samson claims that it is simpler for us to group our interpretations into distortions when we are under stress. We don’t think outside the box or look at less dangerous options.
Based on how family members acted or how we handled stressful situations without the help of an adult, these thought patterns may have begun in childhood. “We squirrel these schemas away as how we think about the world and ourselves,” she says. “If you find automatic, distorted thoughts coming up, again and again, they probably have their origins in other things.”
How can cognitive distortions be avoided?
Take a mental step back and consider your thoughts as understandable but ultimately counterproductive as the first step in disarming ANTs. Samson also provides the following advice for avoiding ANTs:
Take the idea in. Take note of how you interpret your experiences. Remind yourself that something cannot be “totally” this or that whenever you use an absolute word, she advises.
Put it in writing. Sometimes, she says, seeing your ideas on paper—which activates a different part of your brain—can inspire you to assess them more thoroughly.
Consider the arguments in favor of and against your ideas. Are you a moron who can’t hold a job if you’ve been fired? The truth might be that you have a college degree and have held several positions for an extended period. Knowing this, Samson continues, “it’s still disappointing to be laid off, but without the same downward cascade that ‘it’s over and things won’t change.
Samson says that changing ingrained ANTs can take some time. Be tolerant. She continues that it depends on how frequently you catch your thoughts and rearrange them. “Many would say that it just takes practice, and if you work hard, you’ll pick it up faster. You eventually learn to recognize when you are falling into these traps.”
And that’s the first step toward escaping the trap or avoiding it altogether.