Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What Are Automatic Negative Thoughts?

I’d been in therapy for a few years when I first heard the phrase automatic negative thoughts for the first time. It wasn’t hard to deduce the meaning of the phrase, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Like everyone else, I deal with negative thoughts every single day. They might be about myself or other things, but one thing is certain: they’re negative. It’s the automatic part that I find interesting, and I wanted to learn more about this concept. That’s why today, I’ll be breaking down what automatic negative thoughts are, what they look like, and what we can do about them.

What Are Automatic Negative Thoughts?

From my own research, the term ‘automatic negative thoughts’ (ANTs) goes back to the late 1970’s, when Aaron Beck coined a term in a book called “Cognitive Therapy and Emotional Disorders.” And while Beck referred to these at Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs), the theory is the same. The main thing to grasp from this is the idea of automatic thoughts, a term that describes “thoughts individuals are often unaware of, that strongly influence feelings and behaviors.”

I’d like to think I’m in control of every single thought I have but the truth is, I’m not. Human beings are complex, and all sorts of things can pop into our brain that we don’t always understand. Automatic thoughts can influence our feelings and behaviors, which isn’t always a bad thing. However, when those those become increasingly negative, we have a challenge to overcome.

What Do ANTs Look Like?

Okay, I’m not going to make you read a few hundred words about what a negative thought looks like. That’s not what this space is for. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to recognize when ANTs are getting more and more prevalent in your life.

As I wrote earlier, we have negative thoughts every day. But when my depression or anxiety brings about feelings of sadness or hopelessness, I entertain those ANTs far more than I should. This quickly becomes a habit, and those negative thoughts feed on themselves.

What Can We Do About It?

To be clear, the solution here is much easier said than done (stay tuned for my next post for more concrete tips!). The way a person thinks is something that’s evolved for years. When I first learned about ANTs, there were decades of thoughts that were going unchecked. Years of depression can make you more comfortable with negative thoughts, but there are things we can do.

Changing how we approach negative thinking and possible solutions is possible. But it does not (and will not) happen overnight. As with many things, awareness is the first step, and a step that can last a long time. Once we learn more about ourselves and our own propensities for negative thoughts, we can start working to change them. It’s one more step to living a mentally healthier life.


4 thoughts on “Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What Are Automatic Negative Thoughts?

  1. cjstarlight October 25, 2022 / 3:45 pm

    I never heard of ANTs before. It is a appropriate term to remember; ants are everywhere and so are negative thoughts lol. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan Smith November 2, 2022 / 3:01 pm

      Once I learned what it was, I really appreciated how direct and descriptive the term is lol it’s helped a lot. Glad I could share!

      Liked by 1 person

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