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ANT Repellent: Rewiring Your Mind for Positive Thinking


You do a lot of thinking. Research estimates the average person processes over 60,000 thoughts each day! Like millions of gallons of water surging through the Colorado River cut the steep crevasses of the Grand Canyon, the thousands of thoughts coursing through your head carve neural pathways in your brain. These ideas and ruminations form a sort of ‘muscle memory’ that makes some thoughts habitual. In fact, science shows that 90% of your thoughts are repetitive– tomorrow, you’ll have many of the same thoughts as today. So, what happens when negativity and anxiety color most of your thinking?  

When ANTS go marching into your thoughts

Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are your knee-jerk reaction to a stressful situation or predicament. A few examples of ANTs are, “I’m so stupid, I’ll never be good enough,” or “Everyone’s life is so much better than mine, I’ll never be happy.” While a few scattered ANTs won’t do much harm, when there’s an infestation, they can derail your life and well-being.

Why do we have ANTs?

Humans are hardwired for negativity bias! Scanning the environment for danger and imagining the worst-case scenario kept your ancestors vigilant to potential threats, helping them survive.

An evolutionary design gone awry

Your ability to imagine the worst-case scenario can make your brain a negative thought-generating machine. As a human, you already have a propensity towards negativity as an evolutionary function. By ruminating over minor frustrations, you create a neural rut that solidifies negativity as your default. This negative-thinking muscle memory makes you more likely to interpret future events or situations in a negative light without considering the evidence first. It’s unbalanced and unrealistic thinking, which is overwhelmingly stressful!  

Your thoughts influence your emotions, and your emotions inform your actions

An ANT infestation can dominate your thinking and manipulate your actions in ways you don’t intend. By becoming aware of the connection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, you can understand how they shape each other and reflect on how to guide them. 

Example one:

You walk into the break room at work, and suddenly, your coworkers sitting at the breakroom table quiet their chatter. Certain that they are making fun of you, you avoid making eye contact and quickly exit, feeling your face become hot and flushed.

Thoughts: “They’re making fun of me,” “They don’t like me,” “I’m an outcast.”

Feelings: Upset, ashamed, hurt, angry, self-conscious.

Behaviors: quickly stepping away, avoiding interacting with coworkers.

But what’s a more balanced way of looking at the situation? The facts are that your coworkers quieted their chatter in the break room. So what if instead of becoming anxious that their behavior has to do with you personally, you redirect your focus to a different thought like:

Thoughts: “There must’ve been a lull in the conversation” or “Someone might have told a personal story they don’t want others to overhear.”

Would you still feel upset, ashamed, hurt, angry, or self-conscious? Maybe, but it’s not as likely. Instead, it may go like this:

Thoughts: “There must’ve been a lull in the conversation” or “Someone might have told a personal story they don’t want people to overhear.”

Feelings: Curious, distracted.

Behaviors: Greeting your colleagues and continuing with your day.

Example two:

You have a major presentation with key stakeholders at your organization. While you’re presenting, an attendee raises their hand to ask a question. A colony of ANTs creep into your mind:

Thoughts: “I must’ve missed a key point,” “My presentation doesn’t make any sense, and now I look stupid,” “They think I’m a fraud,” and “I’m going to lose my job!” 

Feelings: defensive, anxious, threatened.

Behaviors: blanking on how to answer the question, becoming flustered, and avoiding future opportunities to speak publicly.

An ordinarily harmless situation, like someone asking a question, can feel like a direct attack. With your thoughts on high alert, you’ll perceive an innocuous query as threatening your authority and position, causing you to panic and blank on answering the question. You may avoid future opportunities and decide to stop putting yourself out there as a result!

Pest control is essential

Unchallenged negative thinking causes chronic stress, which releases adrenaline and puts your body in a constant fight-or-flight state. This is unsustainable and causes adverse health effects like heart disease, depression, and anxiety. It also clouds your ability to perceive the world clearly by reinforcing cognitive distortion, where your mind convinces you that your thoughts are logical or accurate when they’re actually just reinforcing existing negative beliefs and emotions (remember that neural rut?) By squashing ANTs before they overrun your thoughts, you can enjoy greater peace of mind and choose your actions rather than being at the whim of subconscious influences.

Steps to smash the ANTs and rewire your mind

Breaking free from negativity requires your conscious focus to redirect your established thought pattern. While your initial thought or reaction may be out of your control, you can choose to challenge it and form your own conscious response. Here are a few ways you can switch gears to break out of a negative thought loop:

1. Question your thoughts. Ask yourself questions like:

      1. Is this thought true?
      2. What could be causing this thought- is there an explanation?
      3. Is this a fact or opinion?
      4. How would someone else see this?
      5. What evidence is there to support or refute this thought?

2. Write it down. Your thoughts are repetitive and tend to revolve around specific themes. Take time to write them down to help identify patterns. You may find that certain people or situations trigger ANTs. To practice:

      1. Identify the situation that triggered anxiety (who, what, where, when)
      2. Describe your mood in one word and rate the intensity on a scale of one to ten.
      3. List the thoughts and images that popped into your head regarding that situation.

3. Personify your inner critic. You are not your thoughts. By separating yourself from the ANTs, you prevent yourself from associating with them. Think of your inner critic as a devil on your shoulder or a bad friend who doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and pay them no mind. 

4. View it as boring. If you heard the same stories repeatedly each day, you’d probably stop paying attention! Recognize when your thoughts buzz in an anxious loop and tell yourself, “There are the same old thoughts again. BORING.” Understand that not every thought is true, important, or interesting- tune it out!

5. Turn ANTs into PETs. When ANTs happen, reframe them as Positive, Empowering Thoughts (PETs). Reframing them is more uplifting and likely more realistic. For example, “I missed a deadline on this big project. My boss will find out I’m incompetent, and I’ll be fired” to “I messed up, but mistakes happen. I can’t always be perfect, but I can work through and learn from this.”

6. Ditch ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t.’ Should and shouldn’t are a form of guilt beatings. When it comes to goal-setting, align your motivations with the values and benefits. The intention behind saying, “I should work out every day” or “I shouldn’t smoke” isn’t bad, but it triggers guilt and sets an unrealistic demand. The added pressure makes you more likely to procrastinate or avoid. Instead, say, “I feel good after I work out” and “I’m proud of myself when I don’t smoke.”

These solutions aren’t foolproof, and it’s not about convincing or forcing yourself to feel cheerful instead of sad or anxious. The reality is that sometimes you won’t be able to reroute your thought trajectory- and that’s okay. During those times, notice those thoughts and acknowledge them for what they are- a cognitive distortion that is unrealistic, negative, and unhelpful. Seeing the thought pattern for what it is rather than using energy to fight or avoid it helps you understand how your brain works. And that’s powerful knowledge to harness.

Do you need support while working through Automatic Negative Thoughts? Connect with a Counselor!

If you have Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits through EFR, you can schedule sessions with a counselor at no cost! Fortify your mental well-being with a confidential, compassionate, professional’s guidance. Connect with a counselor today!

Don’t have our EAP? Not a problem. We serve Des Moines and the surrounding communities with counseling and psychological testing services. 

Meet EFR’s counselors | Get started with counseling 

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