Do you have an ANT (Automatic Negative Thought) problem?

I was visiting my grandmother last summer and noticed she had a small ant problem. I asked her how long this had been going on and what steps she had taken to remedy the problem. “I keep spraying them,” she replied, ”but the little buggers keep coming back!” She was using the same strategy again and again hoping for a different result.

While her problem was of the insect variety, there’s another type of ANT—Automatic Negative Thought—problem that can be equally insidious. When you looked at yourself in the mirror this morning getting ready for the day, what did you say to yourself?  I’m too fat. I really wish I were more like so-and-so.  Why can’t I be more disciplined? My boss will never give me that promotion. If you find this voice following you throughout your day, from work into your personal life, you, like my grandmother, are inundated with ANTs. And if your only strategy is to wait for them to go away, then you, too, will keep getting the same result.

It is estimated that we have 50,000 thoughts per day, of which 70 to 80 percent are negative! Think about that. I am itching just writing about the little insects crawling everywhere. Yet many of us are so accustomed to the ANTs that make themselves at home in our minds every day, we hardly recognize the havoc they wreak.

Can ANTs be exterminated? Yes! How? Here are a few steps to consider:

1. Develop an awareness of your ANTs.

2. Externalize the problem. Can you even imagine yourself saying to a friend, family member or co-worker, You are so stupid. Why can’t you get anything right? Chances are, you would never think that of them, much less say it. By externalize the ANT, you can see it from a different perspective and realize the harm you’re doing to yourself.

3. Talk back to the ANT. Ask yourself, is there any evidence to support this negative thought? ANTs are often not grounded in reality—or at least they fail to tell the whole story. They tend to focus only on the negative. But if you don’t talk back to the thought, your brain will accept it as truth and your body can react to it with stress, worry or anxiety. However, when you reframe the thought as a more realistic and compassionate statement, you can turn around your feelings about a situation in a positive direction.

Consider my earlier example: “My boss will never give me that promotion.” What if you replaced it with this: “Even though this didn’t turn out as I wanted today, my boss complemented me and was happy with my performance.” I’d be willing to bet the latter statement is closer to the truth—and recognizing that stops ANTs in their tracks. Just for fun, let’s try another example of talking back to the negativity: You looked in the mirror and said you were fat, right? Now look the ANT in the eye and point out that just yesterday your girlfriend said you looked like you’d lost weight recently. (That’s another problem with ANTs—they have short memories for the good stuff but will hang onto the bad forever…if you let them.)

While this is not easy work, the good news is it can be done.

Finding freedom from the ANTs in your life can bring a sense of peace and calm. Working with a licensed therapist can speed this process along. And the more success you have with changing the negative thoughts over time, they will decrease in frequency and intensity. So long ANTs!

Stacy Perkins, lcpc is a Counseling Professional in Chicago, IL.

If you would like to connect with her to see if counseling might be helpful for you…

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