Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)

I wanted to write about this topic of negative thoughts because we all seem to have these types of thoughts. These types of thoughts can be devastating to anyone. I often see this pattern of thinking with students I work with on a daily basis. By the time they come to me for help in strengthening their ability to learn, they have lost all faith in themselves. They will easily give up and state they cannot do a task because they are stupid. Part of my job is to educate the student about negative thought patterns and how they can turn them around into positive statements. The following information is taken from Dr. Daniel Amen and his explanations around negative thought patterns. I summarize what Dr. Amen goes into great depth about in his many books.

Did you know that every thought we have releases chemicals in our brain? If we have a happy positive thought, we literally feel good because of the chemical released. Just the same, if we think bad thoughts, we will be impacted on a physical level to some degree. That is why we here students who are anxious or depressed complain about feeling ill. Their head hurts or their stomach aches. Most of the time, this painful cycle of physical symptoms are initiated by the very thoughts in their own minds.

Monitoring our thoughts is often recommended by doctors who tell us we have too much stress in our lives. Watch how you talk to yourself. Catch those bad thoughts they are not good for you. So, what do you do with these thoughts once you catch them running endlessly in a never ending loop inside your head? Dr. Amen came up with the idea of the acronym ANTs and made an analogy of our negative thoughts being like ants that invade a persons picnic area. If you do not "stomp" them out when one or two are present then the entire ant population comes to feast on your picnic.

Dr. Amen goes into detail on categorizing the different types of negative thoughts one can have according to types of ants. The following is a listing of the types of ANTs from Dr. Amen taken from Healing Anxiety and Depression Books.

ANT #1: All or Nothing Thinking. This is the black/white thinking of extremes. It is either yes or no and nothing in between. If I cannot answer this one question than I am stupid. End of story!

ANT #2: Always Thinking. I participate in this thinking quite often myself. :-0 So, if you use words like always, never, everyone, every time, no one and everything, these are examples of statements that shape the always thinking negative thoughts. For example, my favorite saying is "This (whatever the situation) always happens." Husbands might catch themselves stating “My wife is always yelling at me" or Wives might catch themselves saying “You never listen to me.” If you reshape this statement and talk back to it as Dr. Amen suggests, you can write down the statement and then rewrite or just verbally talk back to it. State instead of You never listen to me to "I understand things are a bit crazy right now for, (whomever the person you claim never listens) so they have a lot on their mind. They really are trying." Something to this type of talk back will help you to calm down and lessen the negative thinking cycle.

ANT #3: (RED ANT) Here is an example of categorizing the ANTs by types. Focusing only on the negative. A lot of students that I work with end up in this type of thought process. Until I intervene and help them see concretely that they are capable of learning, the student only focuses on their weak skills and how they cannot learn. A good technique is using the POLLYANNA approach. Dr. Amen points out that if we can find the good in anything negative we will overcome the negative thought. So, where you find yourself in distress because - lets say - a shopping cart just smashed up the paint job on your car ... you say ... well it could have been worse ... I could have been in a car accident, etc. Then you recognize you are not so bad off after all. The release of the positive chemicals overpowers the negative thoughts.

ANT #4: (RED ANT) Another Red Ant is called Fortune-telling. This is where we believe we are predicting the outcome of our fate and the outcome is always the worst possible situation. For example, a person believes without a doubt if they do a certain action the result will be disastrous. They just know it - they can see it and sense it. For this type of thinking an adult can challenge the prediction through logically reasoning and requesting proof. Talking back to the thought and requiring a fact to state the outcome will play out as predicted. For children, usually taking them through what they predict they will not succeed in completing is the best solution. The children I work with often refuse to work through exercises because they predict failure. By helping them understand and observe themselves being successful, their confidence builds and they start believing in their own ability. The will begin to doubt the negative prediction next time it surfaces.

ANT #5: (RED ANT) This next type of Red Ant is called Mind Reading. I often see this with students when they are trying to communicate with others. They often "mind read" what the other person is thinking and how the other persons thoughts will impact the outcome. When I point out that I did not know they were psychics and eagerly ask for a reading they start to giggle. Usually, I will the student understand what they are trying to ask of the other person. If they are so sure about the other person, I ask why is that the case? They will explain to me their "perception" of the other person. Then, together we shape the request in a way that allows for flexibility and options. The student asking feels less negative and more positive going into the conversation with the other person. So, a little social skills training and communication strategies can help in this area. We do not know what other people are thinking and 9 times out of 10 they are not thinking what we assume.

ANT #6: Thinking with your feelings. This type of negative pattern is a tough one, in my opinion. I state this because in this type of ANT we think only with our feelings. Therefore, if one is depressed, anxious, stressed, or in any other less than positive state, the impact can be an endless loop of physical symptoms from all the negative chemicals released in the brain. Here, again, as Dr. Amen points out, a great strategy for overcoming these thoughts are to write them down and talk back to them. If a person is feeling bad and needs to feel better than perhaps a good meditation or a journal entry on what the person is grateful for that day is in order. :-)

ANT #7: Guilt Beatings. Guilt is a useful feeling if you use it like a foghorn, to keep yourself off the sandbar or rocky shoreline – it is a navigator emotion. When guilt becomes the primary feeling it is not useful or helpful. One needs to explore what is behind the feeling of guilt and not get stuck at guilty feelings. When you hear the words ‘should’, ‘must,’ ‘ought to,’ or “have to’ one can recognize they are at a point of guilt and they need to move forward. Rephrasing what is in the negative guilt mode into a positive is a helpful quick remedy. “It’s in my own best interest to do my homework and make it the best work I can do.”

ANT #8: Labeling. In this case a person places a label on another person or even on themselves and begins to believe in the label. This is why labeling, relative to special needs, is always a debatable topic. Students will label one another when they do not know how to proceed in a situation. For example, instead of agreeing to disagree, you can hear children calling each other names because one or both are not getting their way. Here, I usually have the children write out the difficulty through the use of charting their options. Seriously. I will have children who cannot figure out what they want to do create charts with what they individually want to do. This way the inability to communicate using language is taken care of through the charts. Then, they need to "negotiate" to merge the charts into one agreeing on which activities will be done and when. Usually this helps solve the problem.

For adults, labeling can be dangerous if you tend to label yourself or worse your child. If we hear a negative label long enough, we begin to believe that we truly consist of the deficits represented by the labeling. Remember, if we think the negative thoughts we are releasing chemicals that do not make us feel good. We begin a downward spiral with physical symptoms and eventually we give up on ourselves. Take step back ask yourself why you, the adult, is even assigning said label to yourself or the child. Begin to understand what weaknesses you believe exist that are bothering you. Prioritize the weakness and begin to work the weakness into a strength. Instead of avoiding issues and assigning a label, take action and do something about the situation.

ANT #9: (THE MOST POISONOUS RED ANT) Blame. Dr. Amen states this as the most poisonous of the red ants because once you neglect to take responsibility or your actions, you are now powerless. If you did something and then blamed someone else, you are powerless to the overall outcome of the situation now. You, ironically, not the person you blame, become the true victim.

The next time ANTs start invading your picnic, remember to STOMP them out before the whole ANT hill arrives. Maybe you might want to rent POLLYANNA and watch it one night for some tips! The best takeaway from this article is that you have control over your thoughts. We can literally make ourselves feel good as every thought we have releases chemicals in our brain which then impact our physical well being. Think positive my friends!

Here is a link to .pdf from Dr. Daniel Amen detailing ANTs


1 comment:

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