Ever dipped into the biscuit tin then decided you’ve ruined your diet so you may as well eat the lot? Or thought that because you didn’t get a promotion this year, you’re destined for failure in your career?
You’re not alone. Even the most optimistic person is not immune to negative thoughts, but for some, the destructive chatter of self-doubt can be relentless.
Psychologists now believe that just as feeling embarrassed can cause a physical reaction (blushing) so self-destructive thoughts can lead to ill-health, weight-gain, poor skin and misery.
Psychiatrist Dr Daniel Amen has spent a lifetime studying how thoughts influence our appearance, energy and diet success.
His studies have revealed that by flipping negative thoughts to positive, we can transform our lives for the better.
In his new book Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, Dr Amen identifies the infuriatingly common scourge: the ANT (Automatic Negative Thought), which he describes as ‘the little voices that pop into your head and tell you you’re not good enough, not thin enough, a rubbish daughter, mother, worker’.
A few ANTS, he says, can be managed.
But he warns to watch out for ANT infestations — when thousands of negative thoughts start to take over.
The answer, he says, lies in simple ANT-eater techniques that stop the bugs in their tracks, ensuring they never return. ‘Your brain is a powerful organ,’ he says. ‘If you see yourself as fat, old, wrinkled or forgetful, you boost production of the stress hormone which affects your health, your weight and your mind.
‘Negative thoughts can make negative things happen. In the never-ending battles, redemption lies in building your own arsenal of ANT-eater solutions.
‘Develop an ANT-eater in your brain that can eat up all the negative thoughts that come into your head. Whenever you feel mad, sad or frustrated, write down your ANT, then write down what your ANT-eater would say to that ANT to kill it.
Make a pact with yourself to not listen to your ANTS. If you do this, your thoughts will translate into actions and those actions will cause your body to transform into the body you’ve always wanted. Your body follows your mind. It has no choice.’
NINE SPECIES OF ANT (and ANT-eater solutions)
ANT: All or nothing
This is the black-and-white thinking that leads you to believe everything is either all good or all bad. It’s the warped logic that dictates that if you miss one day at the gym you therefore have no self-discipline and might as well give up the whole idea of exercise completely.
ANT-eater: Force yourself to acknowledge that one slip-up doesn’t mean you should give up. If you skip the gym one day, make sure you go the next.
ANT: Using ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘every time’ or ‘everyone’
If you find yourself saying ‘I will never lose weight’ you are acting as if you have no control over your actions.
ANT-eater: Never say never — put a ban on over-generalised words
ANT: Focusing on negatives
If you find yourself dwelling on negatives at the expense of positives you’ll be more inclined to give up than to persist.
ANT-eater: Try to put a positive spin on anything you can to raise your mood.
ANT: Thinking with feeling
When you assume your feeling about something is true, you may not question it.
ANT-eater: Think with logic instead — look for evidence to support and challenge your view.
Using the words ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought to’ and ‘have to’ allows feelings of guilt to build up and start to control your behaviour.
ANT-eater: Banish feelings of guilt, do what you can, but not at the expense of your own health or sanity, and use the word ‘should’ only when it suits you.
If you label yourself (‘I’m a loser’) you take away your control over your actions and you’ll start to believe your negative labels. This defeatist attitude will then mean you have a tendency to give up easily.
ANT-eater: Avoid labelling yourself, and flip the labels you’re stuck with (‘I am not a loser’).
RED ANT: Fortune-telling
Predicting the worst even though you don’t know what will happen (‘I know I’m never going to be able to stick to this exercise programme’). These ANTs are very common and can quickly become an ANT infestation. The problem with fortune-telling is your mind is so powerful it really can make these terrible things more likely.
If you allow yourself to get stressed about something, it can depress your immune system and increase your odds of getting sick. In fact, chronic stress has been implicated in a number of diseases.
ANT-eater: Ask yourself what right you have to be a fortune-teller. You don’t know what the future holds. Instead, be curious about the future in a positive way.
RED ANT: Mind-reading
When you think you know what someone else is thinking (‘he’s looking at my bottom, he must think I’m too fat’).
ANT-eater: You have no idea what people are thinking. If someone looks at you it does not necessarily mean they are judging you.
RED ANT: Blaming others
It’s toxic to blame others and take no responsibility for your own successes and failures. When you begin a sentence with ‘it is your fault’ it can ruin your life. These ANTs make you a victim.
ANT-eater: You are responsible for how your life turns out. You can’t keep blaming others.
SUPER-BOOSTER ANT-eater solution
If your ANT infestation is proving to be particularly bothersome, try this remedy. Write down your ANT — for instance, ‘my skin is so wrinkly and there’s nothing I can do about it’. Then ask yourself:
Is this ANT actually true?
Answer: Yes, I have wrinkles. Then ask: Is there really nothing I can do about it? For instance, can I prevent any more wrinkles coming?
How does this ANT make you feel?
Answer: Sad and old.
Who would you be and how would you feel without this ANT?
Answer: I’d feel great, as if I have more control over how I look.
Now take your original thought and turn it around and ask: is the opposite of my original thought true?
Answer: So there is something I can do to prevent wrinkles — I’ll start looking into getting more sleep, cutting back on alcohol etc.