Saturday, January 10, 2009

The ANTS Return

When I lived in Argentina there were many, at least to me, unusual sights. One of the things I enjoyed watching were the leaf ants. As I was walking I would come along a line of pieces of leaves that were moving. On closer examination I would find each piece of leaf being carried by an ant about 1/20th the size of the leaf. Of course they were fun to watch, but they were very destructive. If they weren't stopped, they could overwhelm a plant and decimate it quickly.

Just like the leaf ants can overwhelm and destroy a plant, the ANTs of our mind (automatic negative thoughts), if they aren't stopped, can overwhelm the mind and cause depression and/or anxiety. As discussed in the previous blog, one or two ANTs aren't necessarily a problem, but if we don't notice and change them, more come, thicker and faster, until they are overwhelming and we feel out of control.

Daniel Amen, M.D., in his book "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life," describes many types of ANTs, which we discussed previously. He also talked about how the ANTs often lie to us. Today we are going to discuss how our ANTs can deceive us and make the situation seem worse than it really is. It is important to recognize and stop these ANTs, because they are harmful and lead us astray. See if you can recognize these lies in any of your own thoughts:
  1. "Always/never" thinking. Words like always, never, no one, everyone, every time, everything are rarely true. Very rarely does something "always" or "never" happen. But it is very common to think "He's always putting me down," "No one ever talks to me," "I'll never get a raise," "She's always so mean to me," "Everyone takes advantage of me," "You never listen to me." The truth is she may often listen to you but you only notice the times she is occupied. Or she may be listening but doesn't like what you say so doesn't respond. It is important to catch ourselves as we use these phrases and examine them to see if they are really true. Using these words pulls our energy and our feelings down, and is a picnic for more ANTs.
  2. Focusing on the negative. It seems to be very easy to see only what's wrong with ourselves, others, our jobs, our lives, and difficult to see what is working, all the things that are going right, all the ways we are blessed. What we focus on is what expands in our lives. When we are constantly focused on the negative, that's all we are able to see and experience, and then our life fills up with negativity. When we focus on the positive our mood lifts and we are able to see how good we really have it, in spite of the things that aren't working for us. A wise friend of mine, a professor, Russell Osguthorpe, stated that when we focus on the negative, we lose faith. Faith only comes by counting our successes. At the end of the day, acknowledge what didn't work, but focus on your successes, on what did work, on what your blessings have been. And remember, sometimes just getting out of bed is a success! Count it!
  3. Fortune-telling. This is when you predict the worst possible outcome to a situation. For example, you're a little late coming home from work. You predict that your wife will be mad, and the kids will be irritable because you made them late for dinner. You start thinking how it isn't fair that your wife would put that burden on you when you are just doing your job, making money so there can be food on the table. By the time you get home, whether your wife is upset or not, you are upset and the whole evening continues down in a negative spiral. If you must fortune-tell at all, imagine how happy your family is going to be that you are home, and what a wonderful evening you are going to have together. You can imagine anything, so why not focus on the positive? Whatever anyone else is feeling, you, at least, can be feeling good.
  4. Mind reading. It is very common to believe that we know what someone is thinking, and when our deep limbic system is active, we usually believe the worst about their thoughts. We may be able to pick up on someone's feelings, but we rarely know exactly what they are thinking to cause those feelings. "He thinks I'm incompetent," "She's upset at me," "They don't like me," etc. We cannot know what anyone else is thinking unless they tell us, even in intimate relationships. Don't assume anything. Ask. The next ANT is that we don't believe what they tell us. "She says she's not mad at me but I don't believe her." Why choose to be miserable? It doesn't matter. If she says she's not mad, then believe her. If she seems mad, believe that it is about something that has nothing to do with you.
  5. Thinking with your feelings. This happens when you believe your feelings are true and act on them without examining them. "I feel this way so it must be true." "I feel stupid," "I feel like a failure," "I feel like you're mad at me," etc. Look for the evidence behind the feeling. Feelings can lie to you as well. Is there good evidence to back up the feeling? Or are the lying ANTs creating the feeling?
  6. Guilt beating. Guilt is not productive. There is a difference between godly remorse and guilt. Godly remorse allows us to see what didn't work and what it caused, and to pick ourselves up, let go and try again. Guilt by its very nature holds us down and keeps us from moving forward. The guilty thoughts often include the words should, ought, must, have to. These words are heavy and create ANTs. We are not created to be forced to do anything. These words feel like force, and when we believe we must do something, we have a harder time making ourselves do it. Use instead the word choose. Put away the guilty beat-up stick. That kind of self-punishment doesn't work, and increases the number of ANTs we end up dealing with.
  7. Labeling. When we attach a negative label to ourselves or someone else, we lose the ability to see the situation or person clearly. Some examples of negative labels are "jerk," "irresponsible," "lazy," "arrogant," "frigid," etc. These labels are lies, and whether we give them to ourselves or others, increase the ANTs in our world.
  8. Personalizing. We always tend to take every action by others personally. "My boss didn't speak to me this morning. She must be mad at me." Even when someone is upset at us, it really isn't completely about us. Their own pain has been triggered in some way, causing their reaction. If we choose to think, "This really isn't about me, but is about their pain. How can I assist them?" the negativity and our ANTs will greatly diminish. Stop taking things personally. Others' actions rarely are about us.
  9. Blaming (the most poisonous red ant). Blaming others is very harmful to yourself. If you blame others for your problems, then you become a victim and have no control over your life. ANTs like "It wasn't my fault," "That wouldn't have happened if you had..." "How was I supposed to know..." "It's your fault," cause us to completely lose our own power. We can never change how someone else acts or thinks; we can only change how we ourselves act and think. We can only change our perspective. As we choose to take accountability to how we reacted in a situation, then we can take control and change it. We can only be offended if we choose to be offended. We don't have to be angry because someone did something mean. We can be strong and protect ourselves; we don't have to stay around mean people, but if we act rather than react, then there is no blame; there is no offense, and the ANTs go marching away. Let go of blaming both others and self. Acknowledge what didn't work, and work towards doing it differently next time. Sometimes it takes a lot of experiences and learning to get it right, but don't blame. Being accountable is different than blaming self, which leads to guilt. We must be accountable to be able to change our lives.

Dr. Amen states, "Your thoughts really matter. They can either help or hurt your deep limbic system. Left unchecked, ANTs will cause an infection in your whole bodily system. Whenever you notice ANTs, crush them or they'll affect your relationships, your work, and your entire life. First you need to notice them. If you catch them at the time they occur and you correct them, they will lose their power over you. When a negative thought goes unchallenged, your mind believes it and your body reacts to it."

It is possible to heal your body in many ways by changing your thoughts. Many thoughts come unbidden, from years of experiences, hidden in the subconscious mind. We may not be able to always stop the ANT from coming, but if we notice it and change it, we will stop the stream of ANTs from destroying the entire plant.

Until we meet again,

Dr. Judi

1 comment:

Valerie said...

Hi Judi,

I'm at Emily's and found your blog. Thank you for your discussion of this concept. It was very timely for me. I had been reflecting on my history of PPD and anxiety, and wondering if I didn't have beliefs that were foundational to my struggles. I like the concept of ANTS or feelings lying, and the visual imagery of stomping at the ANTS when they come. I'm going to work on that. Thanks again!!