by Daniel G. Amen, MD
I have a terrible ant infestation in my house, and there’s a terrible ANT infestation in our country that’s driving anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief. ANTs are the automatic negative thoughts that ruin your day, steal your happiness, and prolong grief. These days, ANTs are everywhere. Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
“Nothing will ever be the same.”
“Everyone’s going to get COVID and die.”
“The economy is ruined. It’ll take years or decades to recover.”
“I’ll never get another job.”
“I lost my business. I’m a loser. I’m nothing.”
“My best friend died of COVID. I’ll never get over it.”
“The life I knew is over. I’ll never get used to this new normal.”
“There’s so much uncertainty, I can’t handle it.”
WHAT ARE ANTs?
I coined the term ANTs in the early 1990s after a hard day at the office, where I had seen 4 suicidal patients, 2 teens who had run away from home, and 2 couples who hated each other. That evening, when I arrived home and walked into the kitchen, I was greeted by an ant infestation. There were thousands of the pesky invaders, marching in lines on the floor, crawling in the sink, on the countertops, and in the cabinets.
As I wetted paper towels and began wiping up the hoard of ants, the acronym ANT came to me—Automatic Negative Thoughts. As I thought about my patients that day, I realized that just like my kitchen, they were also infested with ANTs that were robbing them of their joy and keeping them stuck in hurts from the past.
WHY ARE ANTs SO HARMFUL?
Negative thoughts cause your brain to immediately release chemicals that affect every cell in your body, making you feel bad. The opposite is also true—positive, happy, hopeful thoughts release chemicals that make you feel good. Your thought patterns can also have long-term effects. Repetitive negative thinking may promote the buildup of the harmful deposits seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and may increase the risk of dementia, according to a 2020 brain imaging study in Alzheimer’s & Dementia.
WHY YOU NEED TO ELIMINATE THE ANTs
Just because you have a thought has nothing to do with whether it is true. Thoughts lie. They lie a lot, and it is your uninvestigated or unquestioned thoughts that steal your happiness. If you do not question or correct your erroneous thoughts, you believe them, and you act as if they are 100% true. Allowing yourself to believe every thought you have is the prescription for anxiety disorders, depression, relationship problems, and prolonged grief.
You can learn to eliminate the automatic negative thoughts and replace them with more helpful thoughts that give you a more accurate, fair assessment of any situation. This skill alone can completely change your life if you embrace and practice it.
Note: I am not a fan of positive thinking. It kills way too many people. I advocate accurate, honest thinking. Some anxiety is absolutely critical to good health and success. Pie-in-the-sky thinking and low levels of anxiety are associated with underestimating risks, a lackadaisical attitude toward your health, and making bad decisions.
My ANT killing process is based on the work of two mentors: psychiatrist Aaron Beck, who pioneered a school of psychotherapy called cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, depression, relationship problems, and even obesity; and Byron Katie, a teacher, and author.
HOW TO KILL THE ANTs
Here are the simple steps to eliminate the ANTs. Whenever you feel sad, mad, nervous, or out of control, do the following:
- Write down your automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). The act of writing down the ANTs helps to get the invaders out of your head.
- Identify the ANT species. There are 9 types of ANTs. ANT Types
- All-or-Nothing ANTs: Thinking that things are either all good or all bad
- Less-Than ANTs: Comparing and seeing yourself as less than others
- Just-the-Bad ANTs: Seeing only the bad in a situation
- Guilt-Beating ANTs: Thinking in words like should, must, ought, or have to
- Labeling ANTs: Attaching a negative label to yourself or someone else
- Fortune-Telling ANTs: Predicting the worst possible outcome for a situation with little or no evidence for it
- Mind-Reading ANTs: Believing you know what other people are thinking even though they haven’t told you
- If-Only and I’ll-Be-Happy-When ANTs: Arguing with the past and longing for the future
- Blaming ANTs: Blaming someone else for your problems
- Ask yourself if the thought is true. Are you 100% sure it’s true?
- Ask yourself how you feel when you have the thought. The ask how you would feel without the thought.
- Make ANT-killing a daily habit. Killing the ANTs takes practice. You can’t just do it once and think you’ve mastered your thinking patterns. When you make it a daily practice, you will feel freer, less anxious and depressed, and less trapped in past hurts or losses.
Anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever, and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.