Saturday, December 20, 2008

The ANTS Go Marching...

I just came back from San Diego caring for another new grandchild! Looking at his picture just fills me with good thoughts and feelings. I know that filling my brain with good thoughts and feelings is good for it, and keeps the brain pathways "bright" and happy, releasing good chemicals that have a healing effect on my body. So I look at his picture often.

The overall state of our mind is based largely on the types of thoughts we think and the frequency with which we dwell on those thoughts. This is how the brain processes a thought:

  • A thought arises
  • The brain releases chemicals depending on the nature of the thought
  • An electrical transmission goes across your brain creating "feelings"
  • You become aware of what you are thinking.

All of this happens in a split second. Notice that the thought arises and feelings are created even before you are aware of the thought. Remember that in a previous blog I talked about how it takes 90 seconds for that thought and feeling to work itself through the body and be released. It takes a split second to think and feel, and 90 seconds to release, unless we hook into that thought and feeling, which would cause it to last much longer.

Negative thoughts activate the deep limbic system and the center base of the brain. People who suffer from depression have an overactive deep limbic system, shown by SPECT scans. When the deep limbic system is overactive, it sets the mind's filter on "negative." The lens through which self is seen is dark and grey. Everything appears negative, and the feelings and thoughts are pessimistic. Dr. Daniel Amen, in "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life", calls them automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs. ANTs are cynical, gloomy, complaining thoughts that just seem to keep marching on, like ants who have discovered leftover food on the picnic table, starting as a trickle, then overwhelming numbers come and take over.

Examples of ANTs:

You never listen to me. After a compliment: This cheap thing? It's as old as the hills. They don't like me. This will never work. A good month in our business doesn't mean anything. You don't care about me. I should have done better. I should exercise more. You're late because you don't care. It's your fault.

ANTs can cause people to be depressed and fatalistic. Because they see the world through dark glasses, all of their experiences prove that life is traumatic, people don't care, they are worthless, etc. The thoughts create the feelings and experiences that we have. If we think on our way home from work that we are worthless and no one wants us home, then even if it isn't true, our mindset will pick up the least little problem and dwell on it, and we will be miserable.

The good news is, we can change our thoughts. When the negative pathways are deep and well-developed, it takes a lot of time, patience, and work, but it can be done. Dr. Amen gives step-by-step "thinking" principles to help heal the deep limbic system.

Step 1--Realize that your thoughts are real and create chemicals that affect your body.

Step 2--Notice how these negative thoughts affect your body. Every time you have an angry, unkind, sad or cranky thought, your brain releases chemicals that make your body feel bad, and activate your deep limbic system that creates more negative thoughts. When most people are angry, their muscles become tense, their hearts beat faster, their hands start to sweat, and they may even feel dizzy. Sometimes the muscle tension is severe enough to cause pain, and chronic pain syndromes can result. Your body reacts to every negative thought you have.

Step 3--Notice how positive thoughts affect your body. Every time you have a good, happy, hopeful, kind or loving thought your brain releases chemicals that make your body feel good, cool the deep limbic system, and have a healing effect. When most people are happy, their muscles relax, their hearts beat more slowly, their hands become dry, and they breathe more slowly.

Step 4--Notice how your body reacts to every thought you have. Whether the thought is about work, family, friends or self, the deep limbic system is responsible for translating our emotional state into physical feelings of relaxation or tension.

Step 5--Think of bad thoughts as pollution. Negative thoughts are very powerful, and have profound effects on the body. Just as severe pollution effects everyone in the area, negative thoughts pollute your deep limbic system, your mind, and your body.

Step 6--Understand that your automatic thoughts don't always tell the truth. We seem to have a natural tendency to believe that what we think is true. But our thoughts usually do not tell the whole truth. They are filtered by our experiences and the pathways developed in our brain. When I was young I thought I was somewhat stupid because I couldn't complete my work as fast as everyone else in the class. I was always the last one finished, and that experience colored my thoughts. It was quite a surprise not only to myself but to my parents when an IQ test given at the school showed me to be highly intelligent! Still, it took time for me to change my thoughts about myself.

Step 7--Talk back to ANTs. You can train your thoughts to be positive and hopeful, or you can allow them to be negative and upset you. You may not be able to control negative thoughts from coming, especially if you have an overactive deep limbic system, but you CAN choose whether to hold onto them and keep thinking them or not. One way to learn how to change your thoughts is to notice them and talk back to them. When you just think a negative thought without challenging it, your mind believes it and your body reacts to it. When you correct negative thoughts, you take away their power over you. Remember the 90 second rule.

Step 8--Exterminate the ANTs by writing them down. One negative thought, like one ant at a picnic, is not a big problem. Two or three negative thoughts become more irritating. When the thoughts start flooding, like the whole colony of ants discovering the picnic, you may have a desire to just pack up and leave, to escape. Whenever you notice these ANTs, you need to crush them. One way is to write down the ANTs as you notice them and talk back to them. If you have a thought, "My daughter never listens to me", write it down. Then write a rational response, such as "My daughter isn't listening to me now, but she is distracted. She often listens to me." This takes away the power of the ANTs and helps cool the deep limbic system. It breaks the programming and brainwashing that the ANTs have created over the years. Sometimes it seems hard to talk back to the thoughts because they feel true. Remember, thoughts often lie to you! It's important to truly check them out before you just believe them.

During our next visit, we will talk about Dr. Amen's list of ways that our thoughts lie to us. Or you can pick up his book if you don't want to wait!

I always appreciate your comments and questions. They really add to this blog.

Until we meet again,

Dr. Judi

1 comment:

Karen Ahlstrom said...

I like that you mentioned in your post that with training, you can change your brain's putlook so that the automatic thoughts are not necessarily negative. It does take a LOT of work, and there can be setbacks when your brain chemistry gets messed up again, but that's the real way to "choose how you feel" in response to whatever is happening in your life. Thanks!