Do negative thoughts and images seem to pop into your head at random? In spite of our best efforts to construct and maintain a positive outlook, some brains seem determined to keep their human hosts totally bummed out. These thoughts can be very troubling and often worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety, but understanding the physiology behind them can help us minimize their influence over our moods and behaviors.
People with depression tend to have an overactive deep limbic system. The deep limbic system is the area of the brain associated with feelings and memories. It is also the part of the brain which pairs our words and thoughts with emotions. For people with an overactive limbic system, most words and thoughts become auto-paired with negative feelings.
By conducting exhaustive studies of numerous brain scans, Dr. Daniel G. Amen found the deep limbic system shows low activity — or cool spots — when the brain is processing happy thoughts. Negative thought patterns produce hot spots, which in turn produce what he calls ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. Here are a couple of tips for channeling your inner aardvark, eliminating ANTs, and cooling your brain’s jets.
ANT Elimination Tip #1: Remember ANTs will lie to you.
The depressive brain is predisposed to filtering out or distorting healthy, uplifting thoughts. When you notice your first reaction to something is pessimistic, or when an unpleasant image intrudes on an otherwise normal situation, take a minute to write it down so you can evaluate it further. Not everything we think is true, and thinking something does NOT have to mean believing it.
ANT Elimination Tip #2: ANTs tend to be extremists.
You can usually tell an ANT by its absolute. Do any of these sound familiar?
- FINITE: “You are always late” or “You never pay attention to me”
- PREDICTION: “You’ll only embarrass yourself”
- LABEL: “You’re such a loser”
Always and never statements are the fuel of defeatist thinking, causing us to believe the very worst of ourselves and others. Rather than finding encouragement in the idea that we all have room for improvement, we become convinced we and others cannot or will not ever change. We predict the future, often adapting our behavior according to these mythical expectations. We may cancel dates, avoid friends and family members, or call in sick to work the day of a big meeting all because an ANT convinced us something bad would happen. We then validate our predictions with labels. “I’m better off skipping that presentation today. Besides, I’m such a poor speaker nobody would want to listen to me anyway.”
Can you see how easily a cycle of negative thinking can develop? I urge you to challenge these thoughts. Keep track of them on paper throughout the day. Later, restate each one while avoiding finite and predictive phrases, and without using hurtful and accusatory labels. Try doing your restatements in the evening, so you can kill some of those ANTs which try to keep you awake at night. And consider checking out Dr. Amen’s book, Change Your Brain Change Your Life if you’d like to learn more about identifying and conquering ANTs.