How to Change Your Mindset: Reframing Your Thoughts for Better Outcomes

Ever find yourself trapped in a never-ending spiral of negative thoughts? Have you been so busy blaming others that you feel helpless to create better outcomes in your life? Or do you often spin out of control thinking of everything that could—or will—go wrong?

My husband, Dr. Daniel Amen, calls these (and other self-defeating thoughts like them) ANTs, or automatic negative thoughts. They can have numerous downsides: putting a damper on your day, interfering with your closest relationships, or sabotaging your personal goals. Over time, they keep you stuck in a loop of grief, sadness, frustration, anxiety, and stress. They can even affect your physical health. But here’s the good news: You don’t have to believe every negative thought that pops into your head.

The Negativity Bias

There’s no need to beat yourself up for your negative thoughts—human beings are hardwired to have a negativity bias. In human evolution, it was necessary to scan for danger in the environment, thus setting off the fight-or-flight response to keep us out of harm’s way. Negative reinforcement and negative external input also can help our brains to develop, speeding up learning and allowing for more complex cognitive/neural processing. Negative facts can even help us judge a situation more quickly.

In our modern world, these earlier human developments can feel like they work against us, not for us. But eliminating negative thoughts isn’t the ultimate goal. Trying to maintain only positivity all the time is unrealistic, leading to denial and potential harm. Having some level of anxiety is still what keeps us safe, encouraging us to protect ourselves and avoid reckless risk-taking.

On the other hand, too much anxiety can lead to serious side effects, too, including an increased risk for mental health conditions, or worsening of pre-existing conditions. Constant stress and negativity can play a role in developing cognitive problems, memory loss, and dementia or Alzheimer’s. The bottom line is, we don’t want to foster all negative or all positive thoughts; instead, we want to strive for accuracy and honesty in our thinking.

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Killing the ANTs

If you’ve noticed that you’re constantly battling automatic negative thoughts, congratulations—awareness is the first step in creating change. But if you aren’t yet aware of how your thoughts can skew your outlook, ask yourself if any of the below categories sound familiar.

Here are the 9 types of ANTs that can drag you down:

  • All-or-Nothing ANTs: Also known as black-and-white thinking, this ANT fools us into believing something is all good or all bad. The reality is, life is much more complex than that, and you can find positives even in challenging situations.
  • Less-Than ANTs: A big problem in our social media age, this habit makes you constantly compare yourself to others—and believe you don’t stack up.
  • Just-the-Bad ANTs: When you’re hyperfocused on only the negatives in a given situation, you overlook anything good that might come out of it.
  • Guilt-Beating ANTs: We keep ourselves stuck in guilt when we always think we “should,” “ought to,” or “have to” do something to make ourselves more acceptable.
  • Labeling ANTs: Feeling judgmental? Attaching a negative label—to yourself or someone else—is tempting, but it only makes you feel worse.
  • Fortune-Telling ANTs: People can imagine the worst possible outcome even when they don’t have any basis for it. But predicting a doomed future is more likely to make it happen.
  • Mind-Reading ANTs: When you try to read other people’s thoughts, you’re apt to assume the worst—even without any proof.
  • If-Only and I’ll-Be-Happy-When ANTs: Life is lived in the present, not the past or future. Constantly regretting or wishing to change what has happened is as harmful as always believing things will get better later.
  • Blaming ANTs: When you point fingers and fail to take responsibility for your life and actions, you remain mired in a victim mentality, feeling hopeless and helpless.

Questioning Your Thoughts

Now that we’ve established some of the harmful thought patterns that may be at work, what can you do to start changing them? First, learn how to question and correct the thoughts you have. Here’s a revolutionary idea: Your thoughts aren’t necessarily true, and you don’t have to believe them.

Instead, use the below 4-step strategy when you experience a negative thought. This simple technique was developed by my husband and inspired by his mentors, including the psychiatrist Aaron Beck, who pioneered cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the teacher and author Byron Katie.

  1. Write down your automatic negative thought(s).
  2. Identify which type of ANT is at work (refer to the list above).
  3. Ask yourself if the thought is true. If your answer is yes, ask again: Are you 100% sure it’s true?
  4. Identify your feelings about the thought. Then imagine how you’d feel without that thought.

When you incorporate this simple technique throughout your day, and then practice it consistently, you’ll be amazed at how your life can change. Don’t be discouraged if your patterns don’t transform right away. These negative thinking habits weren’t developed overnight, so they will take time to change. But, with repetition, you’ll notice that you’re less weighed down by negativity and are more able to put your thoughts in perspective. Ultimately, you’ll help alleviate symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, and be able to more easily work through past upsets and current challenges.

How to Change Your Mindset: Proven Strategies!

While the above steps will drastically reduce stress and negativity, don’t forget to add in other practices to support your new, more balanced view on life. Here are some of my favorites:

Take Responsibility

There’s a difference between responsibility and blame. This isn’t about feeling bad about yourself—it’s about understanding your part in any past or current problem. Ask yourself: What can I do right now to help the situation—and what is beyond my control? Do what you can and let the rest go. Be realistic about your role and your responsibility. If you’re never at fault, you’ll feel powerless over solving the problems in your life.

Process Emotions in a Healthy Way

Journaling, daily gratitude lists, yoga, tai chi, meditation, breathing techniques, exercise, dance, nature walks, creative pursuits, beloved hobbies—these are just some ways to feel better fast. Find the tactics that work best for you and use them as needed. Keep in mind that these will evolve over time and according to your specific needs. Sometimes, you’ll want the calming effects of a hot bath and a journaling session; other times, an intense, aggression-releasing workout is the best solution. Mix and match to fit the moment!

Seek (and Give) Support.

No one has to tackle stress, anxiety, or negative feelings alone. Call up a friend, family member, or clergy member. Talk to a trusted therapist about your struggles (you might look for one who uses CBT, which teaches you to challenge negative thought patterns). Also, try giving back to feel better about yourself. Many studies have shown the positive physical and mental effects of helping others. Finally, support your physical body with the basics of self-care: quality sleep, a well-balanced diet, and nutritional supplements such as fish oil, saffron, and curcumins, all of which promote positive moods.

Change Your Mindset, Change Your Life

You might be surprised to find that, with more honest and less-reactive thinking, stressful situations lose much of their sting. Challenges in life are a given, and they’ll never stop coming at us, often from unexpected angles. What’s most important isn’t what happens to us, but how we handle it. By incorporating stress-reducing habits and maintaining a healthy distance from your thoughts, you’ll be better prepared to face and work through whatever comes your way.

Tana Amen, BSN, RN
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Sounds like the author knows about 12 step programs. We admit our thinking is wrong at times, we ask for help inchanging our negative thinking, we make amends for times when our negative thinking caused others harm, we work with others who share the same problem to show them away out of negative thinking and that work keeps our thinking healthy. Good job.