ANTS that bite!

Illustration of red ant and black ants being sprayed

Have you ever found yourself rolling downhill? Well, not really an actual mountain but down a negative spiral that does not allow you to stand up to believe that things can actually be right? And that everything will not be appalling? That it’s not really the end of the world?

  • I’m going to fail this exam.
  • My future is bleak and dark.
  • I will never make friends.
  • I’ll never be slim and fit.
  • I will always be alone.
  • Nobody cares or ever will.

What do these statements do? Are they encouraging? Do they make us feel good? Can we accomplish our goals faster when we think like this?

ANTs — Automatic Negative Thoughts. They drain energy, suck out motivation and portray a future that is already confirmed to be miserable. ANTs make us hopeless about our future, helpless about the present situation and hence we see ourselves as worthless and lesser human beings.

These are ANTs — Automatic Negative Thoughts. And they bite. They drain energy, suck out motivation and portray a future that is already confirmed to be miserable. And if we knew that the outcome was going to be negative, why would we even bother trying? ANTs make us hopeless about our future, helpless about the present situation and hence we see ourselves as worthless and lesser human beings. It’s conjuring up a recipe for anxiety and depression.

Practice makes perfect

As much as we don’t realize it, positive thinking is essentially a habit. Many argue that this is easier said than practised. But as simplistic as it may sound, even consciously changing our word lexicon and subtracting negative words from our vocabulary can bring about changes in the human brain circuitry. And drive us to being positive thinkers. For instance, if all the above statements could be substituted with the ones below respectively:

  • I haven’t studied enough so I’m nervous about this exam.
  • If I don’t work towards my goals, success won’t come easy.
  • I’m shy so I will have to put more effort into reaching out.
  • I have to build motivation to lose weight, as it’s not easy.
  • I need to be more outgoing and build my social connections.
  • People take time to build faith, so relationships aren’t easy.

Positive thinking is essentially a habit. But as simplistic as it may sound, even consciously changing our word lexicon and subtracting negative words from our vocabulary can bring about changes in the human brain circuitry. And drive us to being positive thinkers.

This would magically make difficult or impossible situations seem less threatening, allow us to reappraise setbacks enthusiastically and protect us from anxiety and depression in the longer run.

Why we fear the ‘bear’

Life isn’t easy; it has never been for anyone. That is why the human brain is geared for a specific reaction style when something unpleasant and unwanted happens. Imagine the growl of a bear when you’re camping in the jungle. It’s normal (and very wise) to run for your life. The brain gears into full throttle action, releases its stress chemical cortisol, and cranks up the flow of adrenaline in the blood. This, in effect, raises the heartbeat and blood pressure, makes us sprint faster than ever before, and puts our senses on red alert. We become hypersensitive to the sight or sound of anything that might resemble a bear. We assume the worst. And safeguard ourselves. We know there’s a bear and we have to watch out. Always. And fear it.

The imaginary ‘bear’

But what happens when things go wrong in a non-jungle setting? There are no bears in the city (mostly). Yet many of us react to life’s challenges as if these setbacks are angry grizzly bears outside our door. Memories of the few difficulties we’ve faced earlier in life persist, and we generalise them to every situation. With repetition and time, the brain reorganizes its cells to react strongly and negatively to the slightest hardship as if it were a bear attack. As a result, positive thinking becomes impossible. And negative thinking becomes a habit. A bad one. We programme our brain to respond to every situation like it is the end of the world. So, two things happen here:

  1. First, we believe we are no good. And that we cannot get better. That we are and will always be incompetent and incomplete.
  2. Next we get distrustful of people and their intentions. Our minds become narrow and become cautious, alert and restrained.
  3. We think this world is a miserable place. And it takes too much to get too little back. We become angry and cynical human beings.

As a result, pessimism becomes our defence. And negativity consumes us. It becomes us.

“When we believe we’ll fail, we pick the unreasonable choice to not even try…”

The culprit is an ANT. An incurable automatic thought that things will not work out the way we like them to, so we lose the will power and motivation to even make an attempt. This narrowed vision limits our choices and prepares (rather guarantees) us for failure.

Think about your ANTs

Often enough we voice our thoughts without really thinking about them. Each time we think (or assume) something, we need to validate the authenticity of our assumption.

  • Do I always think this way?
  • Why am I thinking like this?
  • Has this happened in the past?
  • Do I have proof for this outcome?
  • Am I just imagining the negative?
  • Can I think about this differently?
  • Am I thinking in absolute extremes?
  • Has it even been positive for me before?
  • Will it seem different if I am less negative?

When we place ourselves, life events, people’s behaviours, and the world in general in absolutely dualistic categories, we tend to see them as black or white, good or bad; amazing or awful. There are very few things in life that are perfect. And if they aren’t, they’re not the worst either. By moderating perfectionism and side by side striving for excellence, we start thinking positively about everything and everyone in our life.

Stop the ‘if and then’ game

Don’t make positive emotions conditional. We commission our happiness and make it contingent upon a certain number of marks, a rank in class, number of friends, an expected behaviour from a friend, the shape of our body, or a particular size of clothing that fits. Obviously, our chances of being satisfied diminish significantly. The river of life needs to flow smoothly without the ‘if this happens, then I will be happy’ game.

Seek adventure

The ‘railway track mentality’ involves staying on a pre-destined path. This is far less likely to be exciting than the ‘find my path through the forest’ one. Rigid expectations from the self or people or the world in general, are seldom met.Then dissatisfaction comes easily. When we explore newer options and create our own path, we can make room for a lot more excitement and optimism in life.

Look back, to look ahead

Always, experience can be a great teacher. But a good teacher needs a worthy student. We fixate on mistakes and assume they will recur. And so we feel we will fail yet again. The voice rings over and over that it will be miserable because it was miserable the last time. Mistakes should drive invention and creativity. If we don’t know all the wrong ways, we won’t value the right one. By redefining our past we refine the present. The future then takes care of itself.

Optimism is really a habit. Inculcate it. Stamp the ANTs and don’t let them bite!

Dr Shefali Batra
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Dr Shefali Batra

Dr Shefali Batra is a Senior Psychiatrist and CBT Expert, and is the Founder of Mindframes. She posts and conducts regular ‘lives’ on Instagram @drshefalibatra.