Automatic negative thoughts, dubbed as ANTs by Dr Daniel Amen, bubble up inconveniently and often irrepressibly for many of us: they are overwhelmingly pessimistic. These thoughts can trap us in negativity and unconsciously weigh us down. They really can ruin our day!
Dr Amen suggests that we think about these ANTs in the same way we would the insect, saying ‘One ANT- [at your picnic] - is no big problem. Two or three ANTs become a bit more irritating. But hundreds of ANTs can ruin your day.’ These automatic negative thoughts can be invasive and keep us stuck in the cycle of negativity. Like the hugely industrious and determined insect they are named after, these ANTs come in all different shapes and sizes.
The different types of ANTs
Dr Daniel Amen has identified 7 different types of automatic negative thoughts:
All or nothing ANTs thrive in absolutes & hurtle us up and down our brain’s inventive roller-coaster – something is either all good or all bad. They can be identified by looking for words like all, always, never, none, nothing, no one, everyone, all the time, every time. For example, ‘no one takes me seriously,’ would be an all-or-nothing ANT. You can reframe this ANT by challenging the generalisation, for example asking yourself, ‘is this really true? Is there anyone who takes me seriously?’
2. FOCUSING on the Negative
The ‘Fotn’ ANTs can’t find the good in any situation and often seek out the negative side of everything. People who are prone to this style of thinking are likely to say something like, ‘I’ve lost 10 kilograms, but I wanted to lose 12 kilograms, so I failed.’ These type of thought patterns can be broken by consciously seeking out the positive side of any situation. If we take our earlier example, instead of thinking ‘I failed,’ you can think ‘This is a great milestone and I’m on my way to achieving my overall weight-loss goal.’
3. Guilt generation
As the name suggests these ANTs often have guilt as the main motivator of the behaviour. In this style of thinking words like should, must, have to, ought to, are often present, for example, ‘I should lose weight.’ This pressure often backfires and can be counterproductive for goal-setting, as people are rarely compelled to make a behaviour change after ‘should-ing’ on a situation. Instead, the desire needs to be framed positively [avoid using ‘should’!!], for example ‘I should lose weight,’ can become ‘Losing weight will help me reach my goal of feeling more energised and confident.’
The labelling ANT attaches negative identity labels to oneself or others or events. This thought process limits your ability to see yourself, others or a situation clearly, eg - labelling yourself as ‘lazy’ or ‘untalented’ inhibits your ability to see yourself or your behaviours as actions you are doing. Instead you are letting the behaviour define who you are. These thoughts ultimately encourage you to give up before you’ve even tried. Instead, it’s important to notice and challenge these labels with alternative ‘truths’ eg ‘I am lazy’ becomes ‘I sometimes engage in taking too many breaks from my work – what I will do instead is …..’ – you are then seeing the less desirable behaviour as just that - a behaviour you are choosing to engage with – it’s not who you are.
5. Catastrophizing ‘Fortune-telling’
People prone to this ANT will often predict the worst outcome for any situation – eg, ‘I had the interview yesterday and haven’t heard anything, I’m sure I didn’t get the job.’ The problem with this thought pattern, particularly when it’s related to performance, is it can become a self-fulling prophecy. So you need to have an alternative truth ready eg, ‘Although I haven’t heard whether I’ve got the job or not, I will handle whatever the decision is – I will look for other opportunities if this isn’t the right job for me.’ NB - This ‘positive re-frame’ will require thoughtful feeding if this ANT is to be weakened!
6. Mind Reading
The mind-reading ANT presupposes that it can read the minds of others, and know exactly what they’re thinking. An example could be thinking ‘my boss gave me a funny look; probably means they are unimpressed with my performance.’ If this thinking goes unchallenged it can lead to tension in relationships and heightened anxiety for the mind-reader. Instead, it’s important to really listen to what others are communicating and asking yourself, ‘Could this mean something else? Maybe my boss has just had some bad news.’
7. Blame Game
The blame ANT likes to point the finger and shirk responsibility. Whenever a sentence starts with ‘it’s your fault…’ or ‘it’s not my fault .....’ it’s highly likely that it falls into this style of thinking. For example, ‘it’s your fault that I’m out of shape because you never exercise with me.’ This pattern can make you feel powerless as it makes it difficult for you to take responsibility for your actions. Without taking RESPONSIBILITY [at least for our reaction for which we always have a choice] finding a ‘better way forward’ will be very difficult indeed.
Break the cycle of negativity – find a way to exterminate your ANTs by:
1. Becoming aware of your thoughts - notice when ANTs are taking over. Recognise it’s happening, write it down, notice any triggers. It could help to begin a conversation with the unhelpful thought. A Solutions Focused coach or NLP Therapist could be of help with this.
2. Stop & take a deep breath - ask this thought ‘what do you need?’ This will help you avoid guilt driven judgement – the thought may have got used to flooding your mind to protect you in some way. ‘What do you need?’ helps to reframe and correct the ANT.
3. Be patient and kind with your ANTs. It might take time and work to reframe these thoughts, so it’s important that you approach them from a place of kindness. Having alternative truths to focus on will help to starve your ANTs of the attention & fear they thrive on. You could do this in the form of Affirmations - eg ‘I choose to say YES to life!’ or ‘I will learn and grow no matter how things turn out’ [Susan Jeffers in ‘Feel the Fear & Beyond’ explores how this process works most effectively]