ANTs are not just those pesky insects that invade your picnic; they can invade your mind as well.
Negative thoughts are something all people battle at some point in their lives. Sometimes they can be debilitating, causing people to make poor decisions and never reach their goals. Automatic Negative Thoughts — referred to as ANTs — can have a lasting impact. But the good news is that there is a way to combat them and to ultimately change negative thoughts into positive ones.
Sutton Burke, psychotherapist and clinical director of Infinite Mindcare, shared how to do this in her talk titled “Training Your Brain/Getting your Thoughts into Shape” on Aug. 18 at Books & Books in Camana Bay.
“We have 20 thousand to 50 thousand thoughts every day,” Burke said. “Many of these can be negative, especially if we are having problems in life. These thoughts impact how we feel. Cognitive behaviour therapy provides a framework to deal with them.”
The basic premise is that a person’s core beliefs dictate his or her thoughts. Those thoughts then lead to feelings. Those feelings, in turn, lead to behaviours.
Core beliefs are those that describe how we think about ourselves. A core belief could be something positive such as, “I am worthy,” or it could be negative such as “I am inadequate.” Cognitive behaviour therapy at the belief and thought stages can help change the negative thoughts into positive ones so that people can then feel differently and ultimately behave differently, Burke said.
Some common negative cognitions include, “I am worthless,” “I am inadequate,” “I am not lovable” and “I don’t deserve love.” These negative cognitions sometimes are a result of trauma, often during childhood, Burke said, citing a bad car accident where people died or sexual abuse as two examples.
But sometimes negative cognitions trickle down from less severe childhood experiences, Burke said. A negative cognition could have been established when someone was eight years old and one of his friends on the playground told him that he was not going to be his friend, and then his other friends also shunned him at recess for just that one day. This experience could then establish a core belief in the person that he is unlikeable. Later in life, other experiences such as guests not showing up for a dinner party or friends not returning messages, could reinforce this belief. Ultimately, the belief becomes disempowering and translates to “I’m not good enough,” Burke said, adding that the negative predictions turn into self-fulfilling prophesies.
“If we keep buying in, we don’t live the way we really want to live,” she said. “ANTS can stop us from reaching our goals. However, if we categorise our thoughts and the cognitive distortions, which really are the ways that humans lie to themselves, we become more self-aware and start to change our thoughts.”
Stomping the ANTS
There are ways to stop ANTs from taking over your mind. When we come up with alternative meanings to a situation that is being influenced by a negative core belief, it makes our thoughts less weighted. Burke recommends that when we start thinking negative thoughts, we ask ourselves questions to help provide objectivity to the situation. Some of the questions could include:
If a friend had this same problem, what would I tell him or her?
Is this situation black and white?
If a mosquito was on the wall, what would it see?
What evidence do I have that the way I’m thinking about something is real?
Am I exaggerating or catastrophising?
Am I having this thought out of habit? What are my habits?
Did someone pass this thought/belief to me? Are they a good source?
Does this have to be a fact about me?
Is my thought a worst-case scenario that doesn’t have a high likelihood of happening?
Burke recommends that people journal and keep track of their moods. At night, a couple hours before bedtime, she suggests they write down their worries and then go through the list of questions to provide different perspectives and challenge their beliefs. She also suggests that they do a cost-benefit analysis and look at the advantages of a given situation, and think in shades of grey, instead of just black and white.
Retraining thoughts to become more positive — cognitive restructuring — is entirely possible, she said.
Burke also stresses that it’s important that people do not invalidate our feelings. If someone is having a bad day and feels lousy, then that’s how he or she feels. However, Burke said they can also ask themselves what else is going on to put those thoughts in perspective. People can also help others who get caught up in one of the cognitive distortions by reframing it back to them.
“It’s always important to ask them first,” Burke said.
ANTs can be something some people have to to deal with on a regular basis, but by becoming more self-aware, understanding that the negative thoughts often stem from core beliefs that may not be true, and asking themselves questions, they can help change their negative thoughts into positive ones, Burke said, which allows us to start making better decisions and lead happier, more fulfilled lives.