Killing ANTs: How to get rid of automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that steal your joy


Here’s some food for thought:

Every thought you have produces a reaction in your body. This may be hard for some of you (wink, wink), but try to recall a time when you had angry, cranky, or unkind thoughts. More than likely your muscles tensed, your heart rate increased, your blood pressure may have gone up a bit, your breathing rate quickened. Ever been so upset you had actual physical symptoms, like a headache or stomachache? You get the idea.

Now, recall a happy occasion, when good, hopeful, or kind thoughts filled your brain. Such thoughts tend to relax the muscles and drop the heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure.

In other words, negative thoughts make your mind and body feel bad. Positive thoughts make your mind and body feel good.

This is one several key concepts addressed in a book I’m reading titled “Change your brain, change your life”, by Dr Daniel Amen, a physician and double-board-certified psychiatrist. Dr Amen believes that “when your brain works right, you work right; and when your brain is troubled you are much more likely to have trouble in your life”.

Your thoughts are a key source of trouble-making for your mind and body. In particular it’s those Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) that can infest your brain and steal your joy, happiness, and positive belief in yourself and others. Dr Amen coined this term after a particularly hard day at his office, followed by coming home to a massive ant infestation in his kitchen. He immediately thought of his patients from that day–their brains were infested with Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs, just like his kitchen!

I’m sure you’ve all experienced an ant infestation at some point, whether at a picnic or in your own kitchen. At first, you see one or two or three, but when you look more closely, all of sudden there’s a swarm of ants taking over!

It’s the same with negative thoughts. Maybe one or two here and there aren’t a problem, but they quickly accumulate and begin to infest your brain and affect your mind and body.

In his book, Dr Amen identifies 9 particular “species” of ANTs that rob us of happiness. For brevity, I’ll touch on 4 that really stood out for me, and I bet I’m not alone. In addition to describing these “ANT” species, Dr Amen gives an example of how to “kill” the ANTs.

  1. The “All or Nothing” ANT: This ANT happens when we make something out to be all good or all bad. “I’m the worst runner ever, I had to stop 3 times on today’s run. I think I’ll just drop out of training for this half-marathon.” To kill this ANT: “Every runner has a bad training day. I’ve actually had a few really good runs, too. Next time will be better.”
  2. The “Always, No One” ANTs: This happens when you think that something that happened will “always” repeat itself. For example, “No one around here appreciates what I do.” Really? Probably not. Other ANTs within this species include thinking in words like never, everyone, every time, or everything. These ANTs are rarely accurate, but are VERY common. To kill this ANT: “That’s not true. I do see that people appreciate me, even if they don’t tell me everyday.”
  3. The “Mind-reading” ANT: You believe you know what the other person is thinking when they haven’t even told you yet. “My boss doesn’t like me!” In my house, we refer to this ANT as the “assume” ANT. I assume I know what you thinking or feeling. And, we know that when you ass-u-me, you end up making an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. To kill this ANT: “I don’t know this to be true. Maybe (s)he is just having a bad day”.
  4. The “Guilt-beating” ANT: this ANT involves thinking in words like should, must, ought to, have to. “I should workout at least 3 days a week”, or “I ought to go visit my in-laws”. This type of thinking frames things as chores that we don’t want to do, but then feel guilt when we don’t. Guilt is NOT a helpful emotion. To kill this ANT: reframe the thought. “It would be helpful for my stress and energy level for me to work out 3 days a week.” Other words that can help reframe: “I want” and “It’s in my best interest to….”

The bottom line is that your thoughts are very powerful. So cultivate good ones!