Automatic negative thoughts become more powerful the more that they are reinforced. They can be reinforced via our time and attention. They can be reinforced by not discouraging them. They can be reinforced simply by acknowledging them in the briefest. Automatic negative thoughts are like the pitch invaders at major sporting events. If you don’t immediately discourage them from jumping the barriers and running onto the field, more and more will eventually join them until the entire stadium explodes into chaos.
The terms Automatic negative thoughts and cognitive distortions are used interchangeably and rightly so. The word automatic simply refers to how easily negative thoughts and cognitive distortions which are reinforced become automatic (relied upon). It’s like the old saying goes ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. This is exactly why automatic negative thoughts become so ‘popular’ and damaging. One negative thought/distortion reinforced becomes two negative thoughts/distortions reinforced and so on until or unless they are challenged or replaced.
Learn to identify the nature of your thoughts; When your negative thoughts and cognitive distortions have been roaming free through your mind for many years, they almost become invisible. What I mean is, you may rarely notice the true nature of your negative thoughts and distortions. You must learn to ‘watch’ your thoughts closely if you want any realistic chance of overcoming and replacing them. Journalling is a great way to begin noticing your thoughts throughout the days, weeks and months.
Learn to challenge and replace your negative thoughts; If you can challenge and replace your negative thoughts, you will have more control over your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For example, ask yourself questions such as “Is there another way that I can view this thought”, “Is there any evidence that my thought is correct”, or “What can I expect to happen if I don’t challenge this thought”? Alternatively replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts might look like “I am useless” = “I can do a lot of things”, “I am a loser” = “A lot of people like me”.
Practice cognitive reframing/restructuring; The aim of this task is to improve your cognitive flexibility. To hep you to see beyond your fixed pattern of thinking and feeling (negatives only). The more perspectives of any given situation you can identify, the greater your ‘odds’ are of ‘hitting upon’ positive and neutral thoughts. If not all thoughts can be reframed and so you may need to practice radical acceptance.
Use positive affirmations; Positive affirmations are statements which are intentionally infused with positive (or neutral) language. Positive affirmations are meaningful words and phrases directed towards oneself such as “I am a good person”, “I love myself”, etc. Most people will find that as soon as they wake up…BAM, they are hit with negative thoughts and emotions and so they can be quite useful as soon as you wake up. Positive affirmations don’t require much thinking if you have a prepared list of statements.
Schedule negative thinking time; If you have gotten into the habit of negative thinking, it is time to start reeling those negative thoughts in. After all, why should your negative thoughts be having all of the fun? Why should your negative thoughts be getting all of the attention and be allowed to roam freely through your mind whilst your positive and neutral thoughts sit on the sidelines watching but not participating? By restricting how often you engage in negative thinking, you are giving the positive and neutral thoughts a chance to ‘play’.
Re-evaluate the language you use to describe yourself and your experiences; Expand your vocabulary. This can be quite challenging to start with. You will most likely find that you rely upon a very small sub set of words or phrases which you rely upon to categorise/evaluate your entire life. Think of it this way… painting or drawing can be much more appealing if we have a vast array of colours or shades to choose from rather than just using two or three colours/shades. Word usage is much the same. Different shades of words can invoke different ‘shades’ of thoughts and emotions.
Consider medication; Negative thoughts and negative emotions can have a lasting effect on the brain and nervous system which may require medication prescribed by a licensed and accredited medical professional. This may involve SSRI’s, SNRI’s, MAOI’s, etc. Ideally, medication should a not be viewed as an ultimate ‘cure’. Pharmacotherapy for example incorporates the use of both medication and talk therapies simultaneously. With this approach, medication use is constantly monitored and assessed in conjunction with progress made in therapy.