As a software engineer at a major tech company in Silicon Valley, Amanda has a high-pressure, high-status job.
From the outside, she looks organized and methodical in the way she approaches her work, but on the inside, negative thoughts dominated her mind. She felt as if she was barely keeping it together.
“I’ll sit down to code,” she told me, “And when I get to a difficult part, I totally freeze up. My hands will be paralyzed above the keyboard. But my mind is going wild. I’ll replay meetings in my head, recalling how another engineer critiqued my work or beating myself up for saying something dumb.”
Once Amanda fell down that spiral in her mind, she couldn’t stop it. In an attempt to feel better, she’d try to go on social media or start answering emails. Before she knew it, the day was shot, and she got zero work done. She would tell herself she’d do better tomorrow. But tomorrow was exactly the same.
How Negative Thoughts Come to Mind
Amanda is dealing with what psychologists call automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs.
As therapist Dr. Russ Harris explains in the book, The Happiness Trap, the brain is predisposed to focus on the negative in order to solve problems and avoid things that might hurt us. This negativity bias can influence how we see the people and world around us, as well as affect our ability to pay attention, learn, remember, make decisions, and evaluate risk.
From a neurological perspective, the brain releases chemicals when we have thoughts—positive or negative—and, more importantly, looks for evidence to support what we’re thinking, whether or not our thoughts are healthy or accurate.
Over time, that can change the chemistry in our bodies and the patterns in our brains. In other words, every time Amanda thinks, “I must be stupid because I’m getting stuck,” her body released stress hormones. Her brain would look for confirming evidence—in meetings, in past interactions—of her being “stupid.”
The types of thoughts that make up ANTs are called cognitive distortions. These unhelpful thoughts may have served us in the past but are no longer productive.
Maybe at one point in our lives, thinking this way helped motivate us to get gold stars, earned us approval from others, or helped us feel safe in the face of fear. But today, these feelings are what make us spiral out of control, feel bad about ourselves, or cause us to get stuck—just like Amanda.
There are lots of ways that cognitive distortions convince us of things that aren’t really true. For example, have you ever thought the following?
- “I always fail when I try something new.”
- “I am never comfortable with a bunch of people.”
- “I got lucky this time.”
- “I know my boss will critique my work, so I might as well not try.”
- “I should be doing something better with my time.”
- “I’m stressed, so I must be a pain to hang out with.”
All of these are common cognitive distortions that happen to everyone—literally, everyone. Cognitive distortions are universal. But the good news is that these patterns can be changed.
How to Stop Negative Thoughts
There’s a four-step process to change unhelpful thinking patterns.
By paying more attention to how we talk to ourselves, becoming aware of distorted thoughts, and acting more compassionately way towards ourselves, we can move to a place where we stop the brain from reinforcing negativity. This process rewires our brains to look for evidence that refutes negative thought patterns, and replace them with more realistic, balanced thinking that helps you move towards your goals.
- Step 1: For the next few days, record examples of negative self-talk or troublesome thoughts that come up. In the first column of a new spreadsheet, write down the specific phrases that occupy your inner monologue.