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How to Avoid Automatic Negative Thoughts in the Workplace

How to Avoid Negative Thoughts in the Workplace

Are your thoughts at work typically negative? You're not alone. Here's how to avoid automatic negative thoughts in the workplace.

How to Avoid Automatic Negative Thoughts in the Workplace

What is your first thought when you start a new project? Is it brimming with confidence, or are you getting yourself down before beginning? Most people automatically begin a new task with a negative mindset – I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I don’t have the knowledge to do this. This sort of thinking is what psychiatrist, physician, and author Dr. Daniel G. Amen refers to as ANTs, or Automatic Negative Thoughts.

How ANTs Infest the Workplace

On average, it’s estimated that we have 50,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day. Depending on how you look at it, that’s 50,000-80,000 opportunities to think positively about yourself or to doubt yourself. There’s only one issue – most of these thoughts are automatic, regardless of if they’re positive or negative. While automatic positive thoughts are good, automatic negative thoughts tend to be a bad influence on people’s lives, and they can be hard to get rid of.

So how do ANTs transpire, and how do they affect people’s lives? Automatic Negative Thoughts operate just like ants do. They creep into your mind, slowly but surely building a nest that will be hard to uproot. If enough people in your workplace have ANTs piling up in their mental processes, the infestation will be hard to wipe out.

Management Tip

Dr. Amen suggests asking these 4 questions to help reduce negative thinking:

  1. Is it [the negative thought] true?
  2. Can I absolutely know that it is true?
  3. How do I react when I think that thought?
  4. How would I feel if I didn’t have that thought?

Constantly Draining

These automatic negative thought streams are like leaky washers in our energy system, constantly draining our energy, brilliance, and happiness.

Kellie Marksberry

Chief Revenue Officer, Chairman’s Blog, The American Institute of Stress

1. "Always Thinking"

Occurs when you believe which has happened in the past will “always” repeat itself.

2. Focusing On The Negative

Happens when you only focus on the bad in a situation, not the good.

3. Fortune Telling

This is when you begin predicting the worst outcome to a situation.

4. Mind Reading

Happens when you start to believe you know what someone else is thinking.

5. Thinking With Your Feelings

You believe in negative feelings, and never questioning those feelings.

6. Guilt Beatings

Thinking you “should, ought, or must” do something.

7. Labeling

Giving yourself or another person a negative label.

8. Personalization

Occurs when you turn a seemingly innocent event into a personal, negative meaning.

9. Blame

The most harmful ANT. Occurs when you blame others for your problems.

Dr. Amen suggests doing two things to identify your personal ANTs. First, write down the ANTs that pop up into your head throughout the workday. Second, write out the event that happened when your ANT appeared in your mind. Then, you can begin to find the proper “ANTeaters” to fight back. Here are a few examples:

The boss doesn’t like me.
Mind Reading
I don’t know that he/she doesn’t like me. Bosses are people too, and they have their own problems.
I’m not smart enough for this job.
I make mistakes sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I’m human.
My co-workers never listen to me.
“Always” Thinking
It’s frustrating feeling ignored, but they’re busy with they’re busy too. They’ve listened to me in the past.


The key to defeating the ANTs in both your mind and the minds of your team members is acknowledging the automatic negative thought – don’t force it away every time one pops up. Once a person has identified what their ANTs are and where they stem from, they can begin to train their brain to not think in this way. Of course, stopping ANTs is much easier said than done, but there are some “ANTeater” tactics to retrain your thinking.

Here’s how the 5 R’s work: after recognizing the ANT, refuse to let it grow into more ANTs. Stop, relax, and take a few deep breaths; begin to reframe the ANT into something positive. For example, if you’re about to present in a meeting, don’t let yourself think I’m going to mess this up and embarrass myself in front of my boss.

Reframe that thought into a self-suggestion like I know what xx metrics are, I know what I’ve done to prepare for this meeting, just take it slide by slide. Once you’ve reframed your thought, it’s time to take action and resume the task at hand.

The 5 R’s can help break this pattern of pessimistic thinking:

  1. Recognize
  2. Refuse
  3. Relax
  4. Reframe
  5. Resume

Management Tip

Working with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can help keep your employees from experiencing ANTs. Keep in mind, some situations need professional advice and assistance.

A Positive Outlook

The way we think impacts the way we feel. If we start thinking negatively about a situation, chances are we’ll also have a negative feeling about anything related it. If enough ANTs start to nest within your mind, and within the minds of others in the workplace, that can lead to a pessimistic office environment. However, by understanding the ANTs that plague your team, and reframing moment-to-moment thought processes, you can help foster a work environment that’s both positive and productive.
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