That niggly, quiet voice that creeps into your conscious each day. Movies, books and theatre often portray this voice as the little devil sitting on your shoulder – standing there all dressed up in their cloak, red faced, pitchfork in hand. I hate having ants in my pants and we should never have ANTS on our minds. ANTS (autonomic negative thoughts) create doubt, they create uncertainty and the quicker we remove them, the better we prepare for the challenges that lie ahead.
Let me assure you of one thing, you are not alone in this experience. It is an evolutionary, in-built negativity bias that our deep sub conscious draws us into. It is a powerful, immortal beast that will not give up.
Negativity bias refers to our proclivity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information. Negative events elicit more rapid and more prominent responses than non-negative events. Negativity bias is thought to be an adaptive evolutionary function. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were exposed to immediate environmental threats that we no longer need to worry about – predators, for example – and being more attentive to these negative stimuli played a useful role in survival. It’s hard to argue that a negative bias isn’t still helpful in some circumstances, but as we grow and society develops, this hardwired tendency is not as useful as it once was. 3 examples are:
- We respond more and think about negative stimuli more
- News coverage is predominantly negative
Negativity bias is very much concerned with where we direct our attention. By directing more of our conscious attention toward the positive events and feelings we experience, we can begin to address the asymmetry of this in-built bias!
Self-awareness and challenging negative self-talk
By checking in with yourself throughout the day, you can start to recognize any thoughts that are running through your mind – both helpful and unhelpful ones. You can also look at your own behaviors too, for a better understanding of what’s serving you and what isn’t.
When you catch yourself taking a negative view of situations, it may help to practice cognitive restructuring by reframing the event or experience.
- Have a constructive conversation with your ANT to de-catastrophize it by putting your ANT on trial and asking it questions – is this thought true? Does having this thought serve me? Is there another explanation or way of looking at this? What advice would I give to a friend or loved one who had this thought?
The structure of your discussion:
- You must first be able to notice and have awareness that your ANT is present
- Appreciate and understand the ANT
- Accept the ANT
- Tone down the ANT by putting it on trial and de-catastrophising
- Reframe the ANT into a PET
Reframe your ANTS into PETS
What about turning your ANT into a positive empowering thought (PET)? You do this by reframing your negative thoughts as something more uplifting and more realistic. An example may be that you have made a mistake at work and your ANT is that you are probably going to be fired, that you always mess up and that you’re not good at anything you do. Reframing and turning it into a PET could be that “I messed up, but mistakes happen and it’s the only way to learn and grow, I will get through this.”
Negative automatic thinking not only leads to poor mental health outcomes, but it can also lead to a cycle of negativity—certain mental health issues can lead to increased negative thoughts, and vice versa. While these thoughts can seem impossible to avoid, it’s possible to use positive thinking to counteract them.
At times, “the power of positive thinking” sounds like it’s just a pseudo-inspirational cliché. In this case, though, having healthy beliefs about oneself can lead to more positive automatic thoughts, which can indeed be beneficial.
Do you confront your ANTs: If so, how do you do it?