Have you ever been on a fun family picnic, only to have it ruined by a parade of pesky ants? Chances are those ants were heading for your hamburger or worse yet, up your pants leg. Although not a pleasant experience, it’s easy to get up and leave them behind.
When we get a heavy rain, I usually notice a random ant or two in our house. When I begin to see more parading in, my husband is called upon to get out the ant spray! That seems to do the trick. But, what do you do when a different kind of ANT, an Automatic Negative Thought, invades your mind and you can’t get rid of it? Let’s start by looking at these ANTs under a magnifying glass.
Studies have shown that the average person produces more than 45,000 thoughts a day, most of which we’re not even aware of. Thoughts are simply mental activity, the “work” of the brain so to speak. Your thoughts problem-solve and make decisions; evaluate and judge; allow you to visualize and be creative; enable you to dream and plan for the future and yet recall memories of the past.
Negative thoughts, in particular, have a detrimental effect on our body, emotions, and behavior. Negative thoughts cause our bodies to produce “stress signals” which can lead to physical symptoms such as chronic pain, headaches, and digestive issues.
As far as emotions, how often have you experienced painful or hopeless thoughts that worsened your mood? Even the daily activities you choose are influenced by your thoughts. If you tell yourself enough times that you can’t do something, you probably won’t even if that something is as simple as getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed.
What are some things that are good for you to know about your personal ANTs? First of all, they swarm, particularly when you’re depressed or have been triggered. These ANTs are pesky, flitting in and out of your mind. We hear certain negative messages so often that we begin to tune them out and don’t question if they’re really true or not. In most cases an ANT is not true. You can spot them easily if they include the words “must,” “should,” “always,” “never,” or “have to.”
Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty: how do you exterminate your ANTs? The first, and often hardest, step is to identify them. Look for the key words listed above. Listen for negative thoughts when you are feeling down, asking yourself: “Which thoughts are most painful right now?” Look for thoughts that reflect hopelessness, fear, self-condemnation, bitterness, jealousy and desperation. I encourage you to write down your automatic negative thoughts in a notebook or journal. This will help you both evaluate and replace them with more helpful thoughts.
Secondly, examine each negative thought: Is this REALLY true? Ask yourself: does this belief help me or hurt me? Evaluate your ANT by asking yourself if your belief or self-talk is truthful and realistic.
When we have a mental health diagnosis our thoughts are influenced by both mental activity (the process of thinking) and by the chemical imbalance in the brain. Although you may work with a doctor and take medication to manage symptoms of your diagnosis, I highly encourage you to see a psychologist or licensed mental health practitioner (i.e., LMHP, therapist, counselor) to help you identify your negative self-talk and replace it with affirming, helpful thoughts. Exterminating your ANTs can go a long way in helping you achieve and maintain a full and rich life in spite of having a mental health challenge.