It’s commonly thought that happiness starts with the power of positive thinking, but getting happy begins with something on the opposite side of the spectrum.
Eternally chirpy folk have their mind’s autopilot set toward positivity. For the rest of us, the challenge lies in learning how to shift our minds away from our automatic negative thoughts.
Our resident super expert, Dr Tim Sharp (aka Dr Happy) is an Australian psychologist, academic, clinician and coach on all things happiness. He describes automatic negative thoughts (or ANTs) as “repetitive patterns of thinking and believing that have become habitual and, therefore, unconscious. Most notably, they’re unhelpful because they lead to distress and/or self-destructive behaviours.”
The first step to dealing with these little rascals is to notice that they’re there. The next is to allow yourself to move past them and so that you can think positive. Dr Happy describes how:
“As just noted, ANTs are, by definition, at least partially unconscious. But we can become more aware of them through the practice of mindfulness. Take some time each day to reflect up and simply observe your thoughts; without judgement. Only then can you begin to assess whether or not they’re serving a useful purpose or not and/or whether you could try to replace them with something more useful.”
Turning life’s lemons into lemonade is easier said than done, so we’ve made a few example recipes to help. We take a look at five of the most common ANTs and the positive thinking swaps that you can use to move away from them.
When you come to a conclusion based on a single event or piece of evidence.
Hypothetical: You went a whole day without any chocolate in an effort to cut out processed food. You’re out to brunch with a girlfriend and she’s ordered you a muffin which you don’t decline.
Automatic Negative Thought: “I should’ve said no to the muffin. I’m never going to be able to stick to this diet…”
Positive Thought Swap: “I should’ve said no to the muffin. I’ll have this one as a treat because I did so well not eating any chocolate yesterday and I won’t have any more treats today.”
All or Nothing Thinking:
Thinking in black and white terms with a tendency to view things at the extremes with no middle ground.
Hypothetical: You recently made a pledge to try and go for a 20-minute walk every day. You had to work late yesterday and will have to work late again today. This means you’ll miss two days of walking in a row.
Automatic Negative Thought: “If I can’t do this for two days in a row there’s no point trying.”
Positive Thought Swap: “Ok, I had to work late yesterday and again today which means I’ve missed two days of walking. I’d be happier if I could’ve continued my streak, but I just walk to the mall at lunchtime tomorrow.”
Mistaking feelings for facts and thinking that the negative things you feel about yourself are true because they feel true.
Hypothetical: Not being able to stick to exercise regimes long-term makes you feel hopeless at exercise.
Automatic Negative Thought: “I’ve tried so many different exercise regimes and can never seem to stick to anything… I must be useless at exercise.
Positive Thought Swap: “I’ve tried so many different exercise regimes and can never seem to stick to anything. I mustn’t have found what suits me yet.”
Fortune Telling Error:
Anticipating an outcome and assuming your prediction, which is often self-fulfilling based on past behavior, may prevent the possibility of change.
Hypothetical: You decide you want to try and swap out your 3PM coffee fix for healthier options but think that there’s no way you’ll be able to curb your craving.
Automatic Negative Thought: “There is no way I’ll be able to function without having another coffee in the afternoon. I know it.”
Positive Thought Swap: “I really want to try to stop having my afternoon coffee. It’s probably going to be really hard but I have to give it a go by starting small and swapping it with a healthy soup instead.”
Concentrating on the negatives while ignoring the positives. Ignoring important information that contradicts your (usually negative) view of the situation.
Hypothetical: You’ve just finished your very first yoga class ever!
Automatic Negative Thought: “That was fun, although I had so much trouble doing a lot of the poses. The yoga teacher must think I’m lousy.”
Positive Thought Swap: “That was fun, I needed a lot of help but did pretty well for a beginner!”
Constantly turning thoughts around is easier said than done. You might feel silly at first, but eventually, positive thinking will start to feel natural. And you’ll feel like a happier little vegemite when it does.
Do you often get stuck on negative thoughts? Share your common automatic negative thoughts with us below for some suggestions on how you can think around them!