Challenging Negative Automatic Thoughts: Our Brains in the World

We all face difficulties every day. As we come up against obstacles, our minds often invoke a harsh and instinctual response in the form of negative automatic thoughts (NATs).

Rather than letting these NATs take over our lives, it is important to recognize and reframe them with healthier perspectives. This blog post will explore how we can navigate through challenging times by resetting the way we think about natural fears and worries to build stronger personal resilience. Drawing on current research into neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, this article explores how understanding our brains in the world can help us challenge those pesky NATs that pop up so routinely during stressful times.

What are Negative Automatic Thoughts?

Negative automatic thoughts are surface-level, fleeting cognitions that can often cloud our minds. These thoughts can appear unexpectedly, causing a cascade of negative emotions that can be difficult to shake off. They can range from self-defeating beliefs to self-criticism and often reflect an individual’s insecurities and fears.

“Automatic thoughts can be considered “surface-level, non-volitional, stream-of-consciousness cognitions” that “can appear in the form of descriptions, inferences, or situation-specific evaluations” (Soflau & David, 2017). –Joaquín Selva for Positive Psychology

We don’t choose our negative automatic thoughts, hence their name. They pop up against our will and take a few different forms that Selva mentioned: they could be more specific, or more general. But they’re different from other negative thoughts in that we don’t have control over when or if they appear.

Sometimes our negative beliefs seem well-formed. But NATs aren’t formed through rational deliberation. They’re more like reflexes. They pop up in the brain without our intervention and can often be quite jarring and reduce our quality of life.

The tricky part about negative automatic thoughts is that they can become habitual, and if left unchecked, can develop into more serious mental health problems. However, by bringing awareness to these thoughts and working to reframe them, we can take control of our thinking and improve our overall well-being.

Habits and NATs

Our daily actions are often driven by habits, which are ingrained behaviors that can be difficult to change or eliminate. The habit loop consists of a cue, routine, and reward, creating a repetitive cycle that strengthens the habit pathway in the brain. This pathway can become so deeply embedded in the neural networks that we may not even realize we are engaging in the habit.

NATs become habits very easily. The brain doesn’t know if a pathway in your brain is good or bad for you. What it knows is to make any pathway that you use a lot stronger. We use our automatic thinking pathways a lot. When that happens, they become entrenched in our neural networks and we can find ourselves on autopilot.

“According to the research of Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University, a human being has approximately 60,000 thoughts per day—and 90% of these are repetitive!” –Christine Comaford for Forbes

That means anything unintentional that we allow to fester in our minds can quickly hijack our habit-forming loop and become entrenched if we’re not careful. That’s why it’s important to recognize and deal with our NATs to improve our mental lives.

The roots of NATs

Parenting is a serious responsibility that often comes with its fair share of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is navigating how the media can impact our children’s childhoods. With constant exposure to negative news and social media, children can easily develop negative automatic thoughts (NATs) that can affect their overall mental well-being.

This is why it’s so important to recognize where NATs come from. They’re often very deep beliefs. If you think something, say, that the world is inherently a bad place, you probably have some reasons that you could give to believe that. But if your belief is automatic, you might not be able to even tell that it’s your belief at all.

As we noted last week, negativity isn’t always bad. But automatic negativity can overwhelm you without you even realizing it. Humans are very creative creatures; that’s how we end up in trouble with our negative thoughts.

“Imagination is one of the best qualities of the human mind and we use it to imagine potential threats and problems. This enables us to solve problems before we get into trouble. But this capability to imagine threats can also work against us by turning our mind into a ‘random negative thought generator.'” –Deane Alban for Be Brain Fit

Our NATs come from deeply held beliefs, our habitual thinking patterns, and our natural imagination. It’s no wonder they have such an impact on our lives!

Why NATs are so powerful

We fall into a cognitive trap when we experience NATs: if something is automatic, it must be true. This is very good for life-or-death situations where our reflexes save us from being eaten or getting into a car accident, but less so if we have low self-esteem or bad beliefs about the world.

Negative automatic thoughts feel true. They often feel so true that we don’t recognize them as thoughts at all. We just think of them as facts. We often over-identify with them because they feel so natural. From the inside, they feel believable because of the habit loop that we’ve already constructed. NATs use themselves to justify themselves. They are:

Believable because you are stuck in a negative thinking trap [and] [b]iased because you are experiencing a distorted perception of reality.” –Anthony for Mind My Peelings

This is how we get stuck in NAT patterns. Thankfully, we can break this chain by disentangling the negative thought from our situations.

Examples of NAT reframing

By actively identifying negative thoughts and reframing them in a more positive light, individuals can take control of their self-talk and begin to view themselves more healthily and realistically. For example, instead of thinking “I’m not good enough,” one could reframe that thought to “I may not be perfect, but I am constantly improving and learning.”

It is important to recognize and accept NATs as they emerge and then take steps to challenge these thoughts. One way to do this is by engaging in thought or cognitive restructuring. This involves questioning the validity of your NATs by actively seeking evidence that refutes them. It also involves finding new perspectives or alternative interpretations for the situation at hand which can help reduce the intensity of the emotion you experience.

Let’s say that you think, “I’m not good enough” after you get a bad grade on a test. We can break that down:

  1. I got a bad grade on the test.
  2. Only people who get good grades are good.
  3. I’m not good enough.

In the mind, this all folds into an automatic thought. When we look at it written like this, it doesn’t seem quite right. Point #2 is wrong because grades aren’t everything, and one bad grade doesn’t mean all the grades will be! But we can’t make a difference in our thoughts without recognizing the steps in between the cue, or trigger, and the NAT that follows.

Since NATs can be elusive, journaling is an even more effective tool than usual for helping people deal with these thoughts.

“Keeping a journal is a great way to track thought triggers. The habit of keeping a journal doesn’t need to be complicated. Keep it simple, your journal is for you. Don’t compare your journal pages to other people’s, take the time to find what works for you.” –Kimberlee for Bravely She Blogs

Seeing these out on a page can be scary, but it’s important to rob these thoughts of their power. On a page, they’re just words. An automatic thought loses its power when we examine it. When we notice the steps we’re taking between the cue and the thought and when we notice the cognitive shortcuts on the page, we can catch ourselves spiraling into negative thinking.

For one more example, you might have an automatic thought that your husband will leave you if you argue. We might tease out the thought like this:

  1. People don’t fight in good marriages.
  2. If I fight, I’m a bad wife.
  3. Paul will leave me if I’m a bad wife.
  4. So, I should never argue.

There’s a lot to pick through in these points, but we can see the story isn’t quite as simple as an argument. There are a lot of assumptions about marriage in general and Paul that wouldn’t work out if we dove deeper. But when we lay out the thought process like this, we can tackle it piece by piece and dismantle the negative thought pattern.

Positivity and ‘Should’

One common thought pattern is the use of the word ‘should.’ When we say things like “I should have done this differently” or “I should be doing more,” we are placing undue pressure on ourselves and setting unrealistic expectations. We’re expressing a wish that we wish things were different, or that we were different.

Many should thoughts are negative automatic thoughts. Thinking you should be one way or another is usually an automatic thought about worthiness. A lot of should thoughts are thoughts about wanting to change the past.

It’s important to recognize these negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive language based on acceptance and self-compassion. Remember, you are doing the best you can with what you have, and that is worthy of celebration. Positivity is our antidote to ‘should’ thoughts that bring us down.

Accepting what is, rather than what you think things should be, is an important part of mindfulness. Being mindful of ‘should’ or ‘have to’ or ‘need to’ thoughts is a quick way to root out NATs. We don’t want to hold ourselves to a standard we don’t even understand. Rather, slowing our thoughts down to pick out the real thoughts behind our processes is a more helpful way of approaching our NATs. We don’t want to take them too seriously.

Ultimately, reframing NATs is a rewarding and empowering task that helps us build skills to redirect unhelpful thoughts. It allows us to express our feelings constructively while choosing to take proactive steps when faced with adversity. Reframing our NATs encourages a mindful attitude and helps increase awareness of ourselves and our environment. As we learn to recognize common patterns – such as ‘should’, ‘have to’, and ‘need to’ – we become more powerful in communicating our needs. Through reframing automatic negative thoughts, we can foster resilience, self-compassion, creativity, flexibility, and optimism. Embracing these skills reminds us that although life can be unpredictable, it is still full of potential for growth and opportunities for happiness.

If you want more information and advice on reframing negative thoughts, check out Wesley and Andrew’s conversation episode on Reframing Negative Thoughts.

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