Of all the things that can be most crippling to any individual, any relationship, or any career, are the negative thoughts that we all have that sometimes take over our thinking, which in turn changes our way of approaching certain situations. One well-known psychiatrist makes it a major part of his practice to help people learn how to deal with what he calls “ANTs” or Automatic Negative Thoughts. For some reason, those are the kinds of thoughts that become our “go to” when we are stressed, and this syndrome certainly affects a great number of first responders.
I typically say that our bodies are designed in a wonderful and amazing way, and that includes the way our brain is designed to communicate with, and control, our physiological responses. Your thoughts lead to what have become known as self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, if you are thinking negatively all the time and don’t expect good things to happen, then you won’t try very hard to make good things happen. If you practice thinking positively, then your expectations will change, and consequently your behavior is likely to become more self-promoting rather than self-defeating. Either way, you are thinking your way toward the eventual outcome.
But there is more to it than that. Your thoughts trigger changes in your limbic system which controls your mood which then results in certain physiological changes. For example, every time you have an angry thought, an unkind thought, or a sad thought, your brain releases chemicals that may make your muscles tense, your heart rate speed up, your respirations increase, and you may even start to feel a little dizzy. But, every time you have a good thought, a happy thought, a kind thought, or a hopeful thought, your brain releases chemicals that make your body feel good and have just the opposite affect from those negative thoughts.
What are some examples of the ANTs, or automatic negative thoughts?
- Thinking characterized by the words “always” or “never.”
- Focusing on the negative and only seeing the bad in any situation.
- Fortune telling, that is, predicting the worst possible outcome.
- Mind reading – believing you already know what another person is thinking without them even telling you.
- Thinking with your feelings – believing your negative feelings without ever questioning them.
- Guilt beatings: telling yourself things like, “I should have,” “I ought to,” or “I have to.”
- Labeling – the act of attaching a negative label to yourself or someone else.
- Personalization, or when innocuous situations take on a personal meaning.
- Blame, or blaming someone else for your own problems.
Unless you do something to influence those automatic negative thoughts, they will be just that – automatic. The good news is that you can train your thoughts to be positive and hopeful if you choose, or the bad news is that you can continue to let the negative thoughts happen and upset you. Persistent negativity is certainly a sign of stress overload, and it leads down a path that goes beyond self-defeating thinking right into self-destructive behavior if it goes unchecked.
If you are having these kinds of persistent negative thoughts, please reach out to us by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/ and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to chat with you. As always, if you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor. These resources are free and confidential.