Living out in the woods as a child, I encountered critters. This included multiple infestations inside my own home. I had battles with eight foot snakes. An entire colony of bats lived in my chimney for three summers straight. I regularly spotted lizards basking in the sun on the carpet. I spent a weekend in a hotel after a nest of spiders (500-600 babies) hatched on a Christmas tree, while my parents “bombed” the entire house.
However, I will never forget my first infestation in my childhood home. My family slowly renovated the house and learned the layout of the land. They found out that the house had well water. For you city slickers out there, this mean that a company came out and drilled a well down to an underground aquifer, or lake. This leaves the water susceptible to natural forces, including insects. One morning, I woke up thirsty. I did what any normal person would do and grabbed a glass to get some water. When I turned on the faucet, water drizzled out speckled with black dots. I took a look in the glass and saw about a dozen ants floating at the top. With some investigative work, my parents found a large ant colony that set up shop right next to our well. When the ants went in to get a drink of water, they sometimes did not come back out.
This was my introduction to how pesky, annoying, and overwhelming ants can become if not addressed properly. Although the word “ants” means something different to a mental health professional, they are just as annoying and have strength in numbers just like those little buggers we are all familiar with. To those in mental health, ANTs refers to automatic negative thoughts.
The term “automatic thoughts” describes those nearly 60,000 thoughts that pass through your mind daily (Camaford, 2012). These are the ideas, daydreams, and memories that sit at the surface of our psyche. They often go unnoticed, but the most easily identifiable if we paid attention. Based on cognitive theory, automatic thoughts provide insight into our deeper-rooted, ingrained intermediate and core beliefs.
Of course, automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs, possesses a darker tone to them. This is not to say that all negative thoughts are bad for us. They signal warning and sometimes protect us from perceived threats (Van Praet, 2017). However, when they become repetitive and occupy 90% of your head space, the thoughts take up your neural pathways. Compare this to real life ants. If you see one ant on the sidewalk, there is little to no perceived threat. It might also act as a warning to a larger colony nearby. If you see an entire sidewalk swarmed with ants, we have a problem.
How do we exterminate this little bastards?
As with many other issues, it always helps to identify them. Luckily, ANTs are the easiest to identify in terms of cognitive processes and often bring awareness to problematic patterns. If you want to learn about some common ANTs, check out this article from Psych Centrail: https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/
Next, challenge them. Question them. Check their validity. Ask yourself some of the following:
- Is it true?
- What evidence do I have to back this ANT up?
- What purpose does this ANT serve me?
- Is there another explanation?
Third and finally, it is time to exterminate. Sometimes merely identifying these thoughts and subsequent patterns is powerful enough. Some individuals find it helpful to keep a thought journal to record ANTs that they catch “ruining their picnic.” They write them down on a small notepad or text them to themselves often reiterating the ANT, the situation, and associated feeling.
Sometimes associating these ANTs with an “inner critic” separates them from you. By distancing yourself from the ANTs, you take control back and remove their power over you. It does not feel like you are at war with yourself. It allows you to address the ANTs from an objective perspective.
Even though I found ants annoying, I thought they were fascinating in a controlled environment. I ended up with an ant farm or two as a child. I had ants as pets. You can do the same and turn your ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) into PETs (positive empowering thoughts). Take the ANT and re-frame it with a less harsh tone and terminology. For example, instead of saying “I failed like always,” it could be restated as “I made a mistake. It can be fixed, and I can learn from it.”
Before you know it, you will be your own expert exterminator.
– The Caring Counselor
Alban, D. (2018, June 14). Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs): How to Break the Habit. Retrieved from https://bebrainfit.com/automatic-negative-thoughts/
Comaford, C. (2013, November 07). Got Inner Peace? 5 Ways To Get It NOW. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2012/04/04/got-inner- peace-5-ways-to-get-it-now/#689dd8276672