The ABC’s of Automatic Negative Thoughts and how they can cause problems…

One of my purposes for writing this blog is to teach people things that they can use within their own lives. Hopefully, people try to the things I propose and perhaps even reflect on posts such that they can gain meaning of a topic. Although I am a substance abuse treatment provider, I have taught various topics and I consider teaching and writing to be flip sides of the same coin.

This post will focus on automatic negative thoughts (ANT). These come from the realm of cognitive behavioral therapy and fall into several types (I encourage you to google: Automatic Negative Thoughts for a complete list. I will discuss and review three (3) specific types of ANTs and add compulsion to the mix. The three (3) types are: 1) Overgeneralization: Coming to a general conclusion based on a single event or one piece of evidence; 2) Negative Filtering: Concentrating on the negatives while ignoring the positives; and, 3) Personalizing: Thinking that what people say or do is some kind of reaction to you, or is in some way related to you in a negative way. The general framework for how these ANTs work is:

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Now, the trigger can be anything that happens that elicits a negative thought. Since it’s the holiday season and since I don’t particularly care for the holidays, there’s plenty of negative stuff with which I can illustrate how these things work and play together. To start, I’ll demonstrate overgeneralization. The trigger is, for example, my wife tells me that we need to go shopping. My ANT (if overgeneralizing) could be, “Man, she ALWAYS makes me go shopping!” in keeping with the illustration, the automatic behavior could be me my saying, “Dang, what the heck! You ALWAYS make me go shopping. I hate to shop, why can’t you go by yourself?!” Now, this statement would not lead to anything good because the reality is that my wife actually goes shopping without me most of the time. But the anxiety that the thought of shopping created led to my ANT. In the example, I took her statement and turned it into something ugly when I could have just said, “Ok.”

To illustrate negative filtering, let’s say I receive ten (10) pairs of jeans as Christmas gifts that are sized 34 (my true size), but one pair that’s a size 36. I may become triggered into thinking, “Dang, people must think I’ve gained A LOT of weight seeing how I got a size 36.” I could then become morose and pout and maybe even throw a hissy-fit at my perceived weight gain. The reality is that most (91%) realize that I’ve stayed the same size as always, but I only trap for the one bigger size and amplify that.

Lastly, the personalization. Let’s say there’s a Christmas party at the Smith’s and I don’t get invited. My ANT could be, “Dang, I knew the Smith’s hated me. They probably don’t like my blog and think I’m crazy.” I could then stop talking to the Smith’s based upon my perceived attack at their hands. However, the reality is that I NEVER go to anyone’s holiday party, and the Smiths probably knew I wouldn’t come. They are more than likely big fans of me and my blog (because, really, who isn’t?).

Now, if I struggled with an addiction, the anxiety and ANT would lead to the substance or process of abuse as a way to comfort and soothe the anxiety. We all have ANTs, but most of us aren’t trapped in an addiction. The trick for most of us is to try to figure out our negative thoughts and replace them with evidence from reality that’s far more positive. For me, it’s a matter of trying to see the good within the holiday season and not focus so much on the anxiety and stress it causes me. Not really an easy task. But, I leave you with this: Think of a situation that bothers you and check your thinking against ANTs. Chances are, they aren’t all that true….



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