Knowing that my interest in the subject of psychology has been increasing recently, last week a friend gave me a paper written by Daniel G. Amen, MD on the subject of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). Those who suffer from depression will almost always suffer from Automatic Negative Thoughts, filling their minds of such people are filled with a succession of dispiriting thoughts. They view the world through a dim grey lens and this colours their thoughts concerning both themselves and others. They look to the past with regret, find the present unsatisfactory and look to the future with anxiety and pessimism.
I thought Dr. Amen’s paper contained such solid advice that I would write a short post here summarizing its contents.
Principle #1: The way we think changes the way we act
The way we think plays an extremely important role in the way we act and re-act to situations. Every thought we have results in our brain sending out chemicals and electrical signals. In this way, our thoughts are manifested physiologically, impacting the way we feel and behave. Think about how you felt the last time you were angry. Your muscles became tense, your heart rate increased etc. This happened because of an increase in deep limbic system activity. You may have even got a headache or stomach ache. If you think of the body as an ecosystem, a negative thought is like pollution within your ecosystem, seeping into your deep limbic system and finally the rest of your body.
The opposite happens when you are relaxed, your limbic activity decreases resulting in slower breathing and reduced heartbeat. The body has many tell tail signs of our emotional state. In fact, this is the basis for the polygraph (“lie detector”) tests. The deep limbic system manifests emotions into physical symptoms which are read by the polygraph to determine whether or not someone is lying.
Our thoughts are conducive to self-fulfilling prophecies. If I don’t think anything good is going to happen, I’m unlikely to try very hard to bring them about and will limit my ability to enjoy the good things which do come my way. Conversely, if I think positive thoughts I will radiate happiness which is attractive to other people and is more conducive to human connection.
Principle #2: Thoughts and feelings aren’t necessarily truth
Many thoughts we have are automatic. We don’t will them into existence, they “just happen”. Such automatic thoughts may therefore not necessarily be truthful. One of the most painful lessons I had to learn in my early twenties was that my thoughts could lie to me and I had to learn to distinguish between the way I sometimes felt and the reality of certain situations. If your thoughts always go unchallenged, you will automatically ascribe truth to them, even if they are incorrect.
Dr. Amen’s paper proposes to us that if we can learn to recognize negative thoughts, we can more critically consider their truth and if we discern them to be untruthful we can correct them, taking away their power. He points out that one ANT is like an ant at a picnic. It’s not a big problem. Two or three become annoying, but large numbers would cause you to run away. The same is true for Automatic Negative Thoughts, if they start building up in large numbers we’ve got to do something quickly before the situation deteriorates further.
Dr. Amen suggests that when Automatic Negative Thoughts come, we should combat them by either writing them down or by talking back to them. Dr. Amen uses the image of an “ANT eater”, but I prefer the idea of squishing the ANTs .
If you leave the thoughts unchallenged your mind believes it and your body reacts to it. Over time you will be enslaved by negative thought patterns and be at the mercy of a hyperactive limbic system. Dr. Amen identifies nine common ANTs which need to be destroyed, and especially the “Red ANTs” which are particularly pernicious:
ANT #1: “Always” and “Never” thinking
This kind of thought which engages in hyperbole and usually includes the words “always”, “never”, “no one”, “every one”, “every time” or “everything”. Examples would include:
“He’s always putting me down”
“No one will ever ask me out”
“Everyone else is in a happy relationship”
Thoughts of this kind are almost always inaccurate.
ANT #2: Focusing on the negative
This kind of thought disregards any good in a situation and focuses exclusively on the bad. Examples would include:
“The evening was a disaster!” (The chicken was slightly overcooked)
“The accident on the freeway really messed up my day” (I was delayed by ten minutes)
“He and I are incompatible” (Her date expressed disinterest in watching Downton Abbey)
If he gets a 98% on a test, he’ll beat himself up over the 2% he lost. If she receives good feedback concerning a work project by all managers except one, she’ll obsess over that single person’s criticism. Feedback like this should instead be received in a balanced and discerning way.
ANT #3: Fortune telling
This ANT predicts the worst possible outcome. As noted above, this often results in a self-fulfilling prophesy. Examples of this kind of thinking are:
“This presentation is going to go badly“
“He’s going to hit the roof when I tell him”
“I’m not going to get a raise”
If you’re giving a talk on a particular subject and convince yourself that your audience won’t be interested in your subject it’ll sap your energy and make you uptight. You won’t do your best in the presentation and the audience won’t be engaged. Likewise, how many times have you decided to speak to somebody about a sensitive subject and, because you’re sure what you have to say won’t be well received, by the time you reach that person you’re spoiling for a fight?
ANT #4: Mind reading
Whereas with the previous ANT you thought you could tell the future, with ANT #4 you have bestowed upon yourself the power to read minds. You assert what’s going on inside someone’s head, often based on the smallest pieces of evidence: a small comment or facial expression which you interpret negatively. An odd look might simply indicate that the person is constipated! Examples of this kind of thinking would be:
“He doesn’t like me, I can just tell“
“She’s angry at me, it’s obvious“
“I know he thinks I’m stupid”
However, contrary to what we may think, we can’t read someone else’s mind. In order to get to know what someone is thinking, we have to talk to them.
ANT #5: Thinking with your feelings
As we stated above, feelings are not always truthful. If we begin sentences with the words “I feel…” then we must remember that these are feelings are not necessarily true. This kind of thinking is very often coupled with “always” and “never” thinking:
“I feel stupid”
“I feel like I always fail at everything”
“I feel ugly”
Again, this calls for discernment. Is there any real basis to feel such-and-such a way? Is there evidence in favour of it? Also, is there any evidence against it?
ANT #6: Guilt beatings
Guilt in and of itself is not always a bad thing as helps form our moral centre and prompts us to question our behaviour. However, it is often more productive to reframe guilty thoughts to prevent unproductive and misplaced guilt beatings. Such guilt beatings often include words such “should”, “must”, “ought” and “have to”. For example, rather than saying “I out to spend more time at home. I should spend more time with my kids” we should say “I want to spend more time at home. I love my children and it would be good for us to spend more time together”. Rather than saying “I have to tidy the house” we should say “I feel happier when the house is tidy”.
ANT #7: Labeling
We regularly put negative labels on things and people. We mentally label someone as “a jerk” or “arrogant”. It’s extremely unproductive and limits our ability to deal with them in a reasonable fashion because we have already classified them as “irrational” or “irresponsible”. Likewise, if we’ve negatively labelled ourselves, we’ll be far less likely to work towards improving ourselves or do anything of worth since we have already judged and condemned ourselves “dumb”, “weak” etc.
ANT #8: Personalization
This ANT is related to ANT #4′s mind reading. These kinds of thoughts ascribe personal meanings to innocuous events. For examples:
“My boss didn’t talk to me this morning. She must be mad at me“
“My son got into an accident with the car. I should have spent more time teaching him to drive. It’s my fault“
Like fortune telling and mind reading, we are ascribing to ourselves power and knowledge that we can’t possibly have.
ANT #9: Blaming someone/something else
Dr. Amen asserts that this is probably the most dangerous ANT of all. These thoughts are when we blame something or someone for the problems in our life:
“It wasn’t my fault that…”
“That wouldn’t have happened if you had…”
“How was I supposed to know…”
In my opinion, this kind of thinking is attractive because it takes away from us all responsibility for our problems. In doing this we divest ourselves of all power to remedy the situation, becoming a victim of circumstance. The only way to counteract this is to avoid thoughts of blame and take personal responsibility to address your problems.
Dr. Amen says that whenever we encounter ANTs we should identify their “species” (#1-9) and then “talk back to them”, possibly in written form. I would also suggest speaking to a trusted friend to help “talk out” the negative thoughts.
For example, if I notice the thought “He never listens to me”, I would identify that as “Always” Thinking (#1). I would then say to myself “I get frustrated I don’t feel like I’m being listened to, but I know that he has listened to me in the past and will again”. If I noticed the thought “I’m really dumb”, I would identify that as Labeling (#7). I would then write or say to myself “Sometimes I do things that aren’t too clever, but I’m not stupid”. It may be hard to “talk back” to negative thoughts if they have been allowed to persist for long periods of time. However, we must remember that SOMETIMES THOUGHTS LIE TO US! Don’t believe everything you hear – even in your own mind! But by “talking back” to the negative thoughts the ANTs get squished, their power is taken away from them and mental health improves.
So there you go, that’s my summary of his paper. I hope it’s useful to someone out there