Calming Negative Thinking
Calming Negative Thinking
Did you know some of the most common triggers (when the brain releases chemicals that affect your entire body) can be brought on by our very own thoughts? Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and founder of the Amen Clinics for brain health, has a name for these; he calls them automatic negative thoughts or ANTS.
ANTS are those thoughts that tend to be very negative, and they cause you distress because you often believe them without investigation. If you don’t challenge these automatic negative thoughts, you will automatically believe them, reinforcing your negative thinking patterns and causing harm to every cell in your body! For Christians, we not only have a well-known psychiatrist with brain scans to prove this point, but, long before this science, we had the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5 reminding us to take captive our thoughts and make them obedient to Christ (the truth). Long before modern psychiatry, we were given the authority over our lives to stop our thoughts, correct them, and align them with what is true and helpful.
ANTS often show up as always or never thoughts such as, “I’m always wrong,” “I’m always left out,” “I will always be this way,” “He never helps me,” or “I will never finish this project.” If you do not challenge these thoughts, they will drive your feelings and thus your behaviors. Rather than always or never thoughts, aim for accurate thoughts such as, “I may be wrong,” “I made a mistake, but I am learning and can make corrections,” or “I can finish this task one step at a time.”
Another way ANTS may get you in trouble is by relying on your thinking as fact. If you think someone is thinking something, before accepting that as fact, check it out and get proof or challenge the assumption you are making with accurate information. Thinking with your feelings without investigation will certainly cause distress and even problems in your life. The next time you try to draw conclusions about another person’s thoughts or feelings, I challenge you to ask them directly. You may be surprised to see just how often we read other people wrong! We go on feeling and behaving in ways that are unnecessary or hurtful all because we assumed what another person was thinking.
ANTS can also show up as automatic blame, blaming yourself or others instead of taking responsibility. Blaming and taking responsibility are two different approaches. Blame, for example, sounds like, “I lost my keys again because I am disorganized and irresponsible.” This does not prevent you from losing your keys again. It just fulfills the automatic negative thought that you are disorganized and irresponsible. A better way of thinking is, “I lost my keys again. I am choosing to take responsibility for this situation by getting a key hook today and using it consistently as I walk in the door.” Another example is, “I failed that job review because the boss is a jerk and unfair.” Instead, one could think, “I would like to understand why I failed that job review before I jump to conclusions. I will review the evaluation again and ask a trusted friend to help me sort out my part versus the boss’s part.” Being accountable or responsible opens the door for change or growth. Taking responsibility for yourself is empowering!
ANTS also show up as focusing on the negative instead of focusing on what’s working. People often get stuck focusing on what’s wrong with their lives, relationships, jobs, bodies, etc. We should spend more time asking ourselves the question, “What is working?” Focusing on the negative drives worst-case scenario thinking. Again, the challenge here is to stop and to choose what Dr. Amen refers to as accurate thinking. When you are clear about what is working, you can be honest about what is not working and make appropriate adjustments. It may be faster to just think of ANTS like, “I will always be broke, because my parents did not help me at all. I can’t manage money. My life is boring without extra money, and I am tired all the time from working so much.” An accurate thought might be, “It is difficult not having extra money. I chose a job that requires me to pay for training, and I am in debt. This, however, is temporary. I will earn a living wage because of my new training, and I am learning to budget to prevent added debt. With hard work and some discipline, I will have extra money in savings for the luxuries I want.” Write a new script! It takes time and willingness to focus on what is working. Negative or worst-case scenario thinking reinforces a victim stance and keeps you fearfully in doom-and-gloom living.
Next time your thoughts take an automatic negative direction, pause and ask, “What am I learning about myself, and how am I stronger?” You may be surprised that, with practice and intentional re-framing, you see your ANTS scramble for the hill!
To recap, I will borrow the steps suggested by Dr. Daniel Amen in his process called “How to Kill the ANTS.”
- Write down your negative thoughts. It helps to get them out of your head, and you may see how exaggerated they often are.
2. Identify the ANT species. According to Dr. Amen, there are nine species.
- * “All or Nothing”/”Good or Bad” ANTS
- * “Comparing ANTS” (comparing yourself to others and feeling less than)
- * “Guilt ANTS” (thinking with words like should, have to, or ought)
- * “Labeling ANTS” (attaching labels to yourself or others, like lazy, privileged, selfish)
- * “Fortune-Telling ANTS” (predicting worst-case scenarios without evidence to prove it)
- * “Mind Reading ANTS” (believing you know what others are thinking)
- * “If Only ANTS” (arguing with the past or longing for the future: “if only this did not happen” or “I will be happy when…”)
- * “Blaming ANTS” (blaming yourself or someone else for your problems instead of taking personal accountability and responsibility)
3. Ask yourself if the thought you are stuck on is true, one hundred percent, and beyond any doubt?
4. Ask yourself how you feel when you think this thought and who you could be without this thought? Be honest here. Example: With this thought, I feel worthless and scared then ticked off. Without this thought, I wouldn’t feel small and unimportant. I would be kinder and more tolerant. I would relax and laugh more. I would be less afraid to try (fill in the blank).
5. Kill the ANTS daily. This is a habit that takes practice. If you make it a daily practice, you connect new circuitry in the brain. In time, you will feel less anxious, less depressed, and less trapped in feelings of hurt and loss. This will empower you, help you feel hopeful, and allow you more joy. Your body will thank you because you will feel lighter, energized, and healthier.
For more info on the work of Dr. Daniel Amen visit www.amenclinics.com.
Ellen Drews Coaching and Consulting