Negative Automatic Thoughts: How to Reframe Them and Take Back Your Power

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What are automatic thoughts?

Automatic thoughts are something you may or may not be aware of when going about your daily life. These come up when your mind naturally takes in stimuli throughout your day and makes an attempt to interpret that information. There tend to be many different ways that a piece of information or situation can be interpreted, but each person holds certain biases that shape how they think about and interact with the world. This becomes a problem when we either knowingly or unknowingly get attached to one interpretation that stops us from being able to see other realistic paths. Oftentimes, we go through life unaware of the existence and full consequences of these negative automatic thoughts.

Why is it important to reframe negative automatic thoughts?

Other than simply being unpleasant, negative thoughts have the power to significantly impact your emotions and how you move through the world. Your thoughts shape how you interpret or think about situations in life and thus influence your feelings and behavior. For example, if you are meeting a group of new people for the first time and notice you are thinking, “No one is going to like me” how might that make you feel? It makes a lot of sense that this automatic negative thought would lead you to feel nervous, sad, and rejected before you ever even meet this new group of people.

Imagine walking into a room full of these new people feeling this way based on your automatic thought. How might you act as a result? Based on these thoughts and emotions, it would be very natural for you to be withdrawn and guarded when meeting them. All this easily happens to us daily without us even realizing it. As a result, we may end up creating self-fulfilling negative prophecies that ultimately don’t lead to the life we want and reinforce our negative ways of thinking.

Within this feedback loop, emotions can just as easily influence our thoughts and behavior. It is common for negative emotions to lead us to think negative thoughts. Think about a time you were feeling sad. In that moment, were you more likely to think optimistically or negatively? It’s understandable that thinking optimistically about a situation is much harder when our emotions do not align. Being aware of your emotions and the impact they have on your thoughts is important in being able to break out of these negative automatic thoughts. In recognizing this, you can start to find more flexibility in how you interpret and think about the world.

Of course, some of our automatic thoughts are there for a reason, perhaps because life has taught us that things tend to go a certain way for us or that certain outcomes may happen in some situations. With the way our minds work, we often will use this information to predict what will happen in the future. However, the danger of this again comes down to those self-fulfilling prophecies. In seeing the ways that emotions, thoughts, and behaviors all influence each other, we can see their potential to shape our lives in a way that we may not want. Changing our path often starts with reframing our thoughts to find new possibilities in life.

Thinking traps

Within the realm of negative automatic thoughts, there are two common thought patterns called “thinking traps.”

  • Probability Overestimation: This happens when you find yourself jumping to conclusions, essentially overestimating the probability that a certain interpretation or outcome is true or will happen.
  • Catastrophizing: This is when automatic thoughts of the worst possible outcome or interpretation of a situation arise.

You may find yourself engaging in these thinking traps for various reasons. For some, as we discussed earlier, life has taught them to think of certain outcomes or interpretations as being more likely to be true, such as the worst case becoming their reality. While thinking this way may feel like it gives a certain sense of control or safety, you limit yourself in your flexibility to interpret and thus in how you respond both emotionally and in your behavior. Continuing to only think within the confines of these traps increases the likelihood that you will respond in maladaptive ways and experience negative emotions.

How can we reframe negative thoughts?

Step 1: Build awareness and make space
For many people, we imagine our thoughts as who we are instead of something separate from ourselves. Start by seeing if you can simply notice your thoughts as they arise. Practicing mindfulness can help in building this level of awareness. Once you are able to notice these thoughts, you give yourself the power to see them for what they are – just thoughts. Thoughts do not define you and witnessing them instead of being one with them helps provide you the space to choose how you respond and interact with your thoughts.

Step 2: Write down your negative thought and then rework it
While it may feel difficult in your busy day, see if you can take a moment to write down your negative automatic thoughts when you notice them. If you do not have time or a safe space in the moment to reframe your thoughts, you can pause and come back to it later. When you are able to reflect on the negative thought written down before you, ask yourself these questions:

  • If someone I loved shared this thought with me, how would I respond or reframe it for them?
  • How might I be more compassionate with myself?
  • Are there any other possible interpretations or possibilities?
  • Is anything influencing my thoughts in this moment? Any negative emotions?

Based on what comes up with these questions, now see if you can write down a new version of your thought that feels more balanced. Too often, we don’t show ourselves the same compassion we do for others. This practice gives us the opportunity to recognize and change this pattern. Additionally, in taking the time to practice these skills, you are increasing your cognitive flexibility that will allow you to find more positive ways of thinking and increased ability to feel more positive emotions as you move through life.

Step 3: Notice and address any patterns or themes
Writing down your thoughts gives you the ability to notice what key patterns and themes are coming up over time. Why is it that these consistently are coming up for you and what is their impact? This can provide good insight into where you may have a specific area for further reflection or personal growth. Whether this be on your own or with the help of a therapist, these insights can be powerful tools.

Having a written record also allows you to see your progress over time. Take time to review where you started and where you are today in this practice to appreciate how far you have come. This can be especially helpful on those down days where negative thoughts start to come up, as you have a notebook full of evidence showing you just what you are capable of in more ways than one.

The goal is not to reject, but to increase our room to flex

When examining the way you think, it can be easy to assign these negative thoughts labels like “bad” or “wrong” with the urge to reject them. What can happen when we push these thoughts away is that sometimes they will actually grow louder. The goal is to instead realize these negative thoughts are just one way of interpreting, not the ONLY way. This realization helps us better evaluate the world around us by being able to think of many different interpretations. Having the ability to think more flexibly gives us the power to see the world in different ways that are realistic and better serve us. As a society, we tend to think that only “bad” or “good” thoughts can exist, not both. Increasing our cognitive flexibility allows us to see that these thoughts can coexist with space for us to more adaptively respond instead of simply “being” our automatic thoughts.

When practicing reframing negative thoughts, remember to be gentle with yourself and recognize that change takes time. While proven to have profound impacts in the long term, it takes great patience for this to take hold. Imagine that your whole life you have been paving one path in your mind, one metaphorical road for your thoughts to travel down. These negative thoughts have created a smooth, traffic-free, five-lane highway for you to easily travel down. As you begin to build a new road for other ways of thinking, it might start out with a simple dirt road, and maybe a couple trees have fallen across the path that you need to clear out. Each time you practice reframing your thoughts, you help build up that alternate route. It takes time, but with diligence and commitment you will pave new paths to travel.