Food for thought: How negative thinking impacts our life & health

Published: Thursday, July 27, 2023
PGY-2 Family Medicine Resident

Do you ever find yourself falling into the habit of thinking negatively? It may start as just one small, pessimistic thought, but it can easily turn into a rabbit hole of doom and gloom. All of us have had those moments, and before we know it, it’s hard to see the positive in anything. Negative thoughts can take over all aspects of our lives. They can affect our relationships with others, cause low self-esteem, and make it harder to get through our day. Not only can negative thinking adversely affect our mental health (by worsening anxiety and depression), but it can also affect our physical health (by raising blood pressure and making it more difficult to recover from illness). These are just a few examples of how mindset and health are connected. Although negative thoughts can make us feel powerless, we actually have the power to fight back against them and challenge the way we think.

Some people might tell you to look at the glass as “half full,” but personally, that analogy usually makes me want to throw the glass away entirely. Instead, I recommend using the ANT model (yes, I’m referring to those picnic pests). The ANT model helps break down negative thoughts with logic and evidence instead of casting them to the side like the “glass half full” idea.

ANT stands for automatic negative thought. Some examples of ANTs in your life might be “that person hates me” or “I have nothing going for me” or “I’m never going to be happy.” ANTs tend to just pop into our heads without any warning. Think of each automatic negative thought (ANT) as a real-life ant. One or two ants at a picnic aren’t going to ruin your lunch, but if an entire colony of ants shows up, then the day probably won’t be very pleasant. Similarly, automatic negative thoughts can take over your life when they multiply and get out of control, so we’re going to discuss how to get rid of them.

First, identify the ANT that you’re dealing with. Right now, just think of any automatic negative thought that regularly comes to mind. It can help to write your ANT down on paper, especially if you’re a visual learner. When you’re having a picnic, there’s never just one type of ant. You’ve got the little black ants, the bullet ants and (my personal enemy) the fire ants.

Similarly, there are several species of automatic negative thoughts. Some examples of ANT species are listed below:

  • All-or-nothing ANTs:
    Thinking in extremes, that things are either all good or all bad
  • Less-than ANTs:
    Comparing yourself and your situation to others and seeing yourself as less-than
  • Just-the-bad ANTs:
    Seeing only the bad in a situation
  • Guilt-beating ANTs:
    Thinking in words like should, must, ought or have to
  • Labeling ANTs:
    Attaching a negative label to yourself or someone else
  • Fortune-telling ANTs:
    Predicting the worst possible outcome for a situation with little or no evidence for it
  • Mind-reading ANTs:
    Believing you know what other people are thinking even though they haven’t told you
  • If-only-and- I’ll-be-happy-when ANTs:
    Arguing with the past and longing for the future
  • Blaming ANTs:
    Blaming others for your problems

Based on the above species, try to identify which species your ANT belongs to. Are you using all-or-nothing thinking or fortune telling, or is it a combination of multiple species? Next, ask yourself, “Is my ANT actually true?” Just because a thought pops into our mind doesn’t mean that it’s automatically the truth, so questioning this is important. Now for my favorite part. It’s time to squish the ANT! Think of all the reasons why that ANT may not be the truth and examples that counteract the ANT. This is called the ANT eater.

For example, if my automatic negative thought is “I’m never going to be happy,” the categories it falls into are fortune telling and all-or-nothing thinking. When questioning if my ANT is true, I would remember that I have been happy in the past and that each day presents a new opportunity to experience happiness. These countering thoughts are the ANT eaters. So, my original negative thought doesn’t even give me an accurate picture of my reality but instead places a dark cloud over my head.

Taking care of the ANTs in your life will be a daily and lifelong habit, but with time and consistency, you can retrain your brain to question those automatic negative thoughts and reason through them. Although the ANT method uses a silly analogy, it is used as a technique for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy is used to treat all sorts of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, panic disorder, PTSD, eating disorders and many more. In many cases, ANTs can lead to these conditions or exacerbate and perpetuate them. You may be able to relate to having negative thoughts make what you’re already going through even worse. As someone who has dealt with what seems like an ant pile worth of ANTs and who has literally stepped on a real ant pile, I can confirm that both are super unpleasant. But we have the power to challenge the way we think and keep those pesky ANTs away from our perfectly good picnics.

It is also completely okay to seek out professional help in order to assist in ANT extermination and further CBT techniques. Some ANTs are harder to exterminate than others, and consulting with trained mental health professionals can help the process.

Learn More

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