In one of my health coaching sessions this week, my client came to an important realisation. We had been discussing her family life and she mentioned that for the first time, her 15 year old son had been out on a couple of dates with a friend of a friend. When her son showed her some photos of his new infatuation, my client said the first thought that crossed her mind was “This girl isn’t good enough for my son. He deserves better.”
Now, I’m sure many a mother has thought the same thing when introduced to their son’s girlfriends or potential life partner but what was amazing was that my client heard her thoughts and realised just how negative and judgemental they were. She then took some time to question her thoughts, reject them and respond in a fairer, less judgemental way.
What crossed her mind when she saw the photos of this girl were Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs.
ANTs are typically negative, cynical and complaining thoughts that just pop up out of the blue. Picture these negative thoughts like actual ants that start crawling on your picnic blanket as soon as you set out a lovely picnic. One or two ants every few hours aren’t going to be much of a problem. But what would happen if two ants turned up every couple of minutes. Before long, your picnic is going to be covered in ants and you’ll no longer be able to relax and enjoy your picnic. You’ll even need to pack up and leave ASAP.
Likewise, if ANTs keep popping into your mind regularly throughout the day, this will lead you to feeling uneasy, anxious and unhappy. The more ANTs you experience, the stronger your negative feelings become because negative thoughts always lead to negative feelings. Whenever you have negative thoughts, your brain produces chemicals that lead to negative physical reactions such as cold, clammy hands, increased heartbeat, tensing of the muscles and changes to your appetite (either too much or too little). This is why it’s vital to crush ANTs.
Here are the simple steps you can take to squash them:
- Awareness – Become more aware of your own thoughts by telling yourself that you will notice your thoughts today. It might be helpful to set a reminder on your phone every couple of hours with a short reminder, for example, “Catch those ANTs” or “Look out for ANTs!” Be aware of not just the thoughts in your head, but also any automatic negative things that you say.
- Confront your ANTs – Take a few seconds to recognise the ANT for what it is – a subconscious automatic negative thought and NOT reality. Write them down on paper if possible. Even just acknowledging your ANTs removes their power over you and your feelings.
- Examine your ANTs – By bringing your ANTs into your conscious mind, you can examine them and see that they often make very little sense at all. See if you have any recurring ANTs. Dr Daniel Amen has categorized ANTs in 9 different ‘species’ of ANTs, which you can read about here.
- Reframe your thoughts – You have the power confront your ANTs and change your thought patterns. Initially, this will take practise and effort but over time, you will be able to recognise and squash ANTs effortlessly. And even better, over time you will have fewer ANTs to deal with!
Here are some examples of dealing with different types of ANTs:
ANT: I’m stupid and hopeless.
Type of ANT: Labelling
Reframing the thought: Sometimes I make mistakes and get things wrong, but that doesn’t happen all the time and that doesn’t mean I’m stupid.
ANT: This girl isn’t good enough for my son.
Type of ANT: Focusing on the negative.
Reframing the thought: I haven’t got to know her yet. She may well turn out to be a lovely, bright and kind girl after all.
ANT: My kids never listen to me.
Type of ANT: Always/Never thinking
Reframing the thought: Yes, I get frustrated when my kids don’t listen to me but if I’m being honest, it tends to happen when they’re distracted by something fun and exciting. They do listen to me when things are calmer and less distracting.
Through our coaching sessions, my client learnt to became aware of the numerous ANTs that were ruining her self-esteem and sabotaging her attempts at improving her health. But more importantly, she learnt how to step out of negative auto pilot mode, challenge her ANTs and replace the ANTs with kinder, more positive thoughts. Being able to confront and replace her negative thoughts is one very useful skill that is helping my client work towards her health goals. Without the frequent ANTs, she finally feels that she is worthy of taking care of her own health and has stopped self sabotaging her attempts at eating healthier food and exercising.
If you use any of the tips in this blog and discover that you have ANTs holding you back, perhaps health coaching can help you. Contact me to arrange a free Exploratory Call to discuss if Health Coaching is right for you.