An initial step in training your mind to better manage negative emotional states, involves learning how to self-direct your attention to your thoughts. You will then become aware that many ofyour thoughts are happening automatically, much like your breathing or heartbeat, without any conscious effort on your part. Thus, all of us seem to have an AUTOMATIC THOUGHT GENERATOR that habitually is producing thoughts.
Once you start to pay attention to your thinking, you will notice that, in general, most of our thoughts fall into two categories. One type of thinking is useful or beneficial to the self. This type of thinking helps you to plan or to direct your behavior to achieve some sort of goal.
The other type of thinking is typically dominated by distorted, negative judgments about yourself, other people, or the future. These thoughts are called Automatic Negative Thoughts or ANTS, and most of us get them quite frequently. The ANTS feed on your attention. The more you focus on them, the more the thoughts repeat and trigger negative emotions. The ANTS take you out of the present moment and contaminate good feelings. They cause the mind to be over-reactive and waste time and emotion.
Therefore, it is important to understand when your mind is generating ANTS. In order to do this, you will need to pay attention to your thinking, especially when you are feeling upset. You will need to determine if the upsetting thoughts are accurate and useful in some way to the self, or if your mind is generating ANTS. You will need to know some more details about the ANTS to aid you in this process.
IDENTIFYING THE ANTS
Most of the ANTS tend to occur in the following ways and can become habitual tendencies over time:
Negative Anticipations. These thoughts typically start with “What if” and involve imagining that some future worst case scenario will occur. These thoughts typically make us anxious and tend to preoccupy our mind. Although these ANTS seem so real, there isn’t solid evidence to support that the thoughts are true and accurate predictors of future outcomes. Many of us have spent a lot of wasted time, worrying about things that will never happen.
Internal Critic. This type of ANT is always putting you down, being overly critical, and makes you feel inadequate or inferior in some way. It is impossible to build-up your self-confidence when you are being overly self-critical. These ANTS can cause low self-esteem and depressed mood. Most people with an overly harsh, internal critic, would never treat a best friend or someone they love, with the same negativity that they direct to their own self.
Other Blame. These ANTS are all about giving other people control of our mind by being over-reactive emotionally. By blaming others we prolong our angry feelings and assume a victim mentality. It is impossible to experience positive mind states or feel better in your life if you’re angry or resentful.
ELIMINATING THE ANTS
Now that you understand that your mind habitually generates certain types of ANTS, you need a method for getting rid of them. That method involves identifying when you are getting ANTS and being able to shift your attention back to the present moment. Once back in the “Now”, you can re-engage your mind into more beneficial pursuits. Most of us need to practice this process multiple times per day to really get good at consciously controlling our attention.
When you have identified that you are getting ANTS, shift your attention back to your senses. Ask yourself any of these questions, “What is my body doing?” “What am I looking at?” “What are my hands doing?” You can also focus your attention on your breathing: are you inhaling or exhaling? When you focus your attention on your senses, you put your attention back in the present moment. This cuts off the attentional energy that was magnifying and maintaining the ANTS.
Now that you are consciously controlling your attention, it is important to redirect it into thoughts and activities that are more productive and/or relaxing. If you’re not sure what to do, the default setting is always, “what would I normally be doing now if I wasn’t having the thought (or ANT)?”
The following steps summarize the process of getting rid of ANTS:
Become aware when your mind is generating ANTS. Remember the guidelines. The ANTS are often repeaters and make you worry or feel bad. They do not help you solve problems. The ANTS are often distorted because they are based on faulty reasoning. Although anything thought can be possible,ANTS are not probable. Examining the evidence, as to whether the thought is true or not, will help you to identify the ANTS and make your thoughts more objective.
Tell yourself, “It’s just my old automatic negative thoughts again, it’s time for me to take conscious control and shift out of these thoughts.” The type ofANTS your mind tends to habitually produce will be pretty predictable-typically based on past conditioning.
The next step is to consciously shift your attention to your senses (eg. “What is my body doing now?”). Shifting your attention to your senses will get your attention back to the present moment. This will give you greater conscious control and will immediately reduce the impact of the ANTS.
Then, do what you would normally be doing if you weren’t having the thought or do something productive and/or relaxing.
You will need to repeat these steps multiple times per day in order to train your mind to shift your attention back to the “Now” and to consciously re-engage more quickly.
Remember, the ANTS are a distraction. ANTS tend to occur most when the mind isn’t engaged in some external task or activity and/or they can take the mind out of engagement. This entire protocol could be seen as a way to train your attention as well as distraction control training. You want the object of your focus to be something beneficial to the self, not the ANTS. Attention training the mind in this way will enhance your productivity and your ability to enjoy your life. Don’t feed the ANTS!