White-anting our lives

by leona on November 12, 2010

How often do we let our thoughts have free rein in our minds…influencing how we feel, what we do, what we think is possible or impossible, closing off options and creativity? This article by Dr Daniel Amen from AHHA  succinctly describes some of the ways we may allow our thoughts can white-ant our lives.

Daniel G. Amen, M.D. is an award winning physician, psychiatrist, best-selling author, international speakers, and brain enhancement expert. He is the founder and medical director of the world renowned Amen Clinics, Inc. Dr. Amen educates companies, organizations, and individuals on the importance of brain health and the impact of the brain on every aspect of life. The host of 4 highly successful PBS programs and a frequent radio and TV guest, Daniel is the author of 24 books, including 3 New York Times best-sellers.

Our overall mind state has a certain tone or flavor based largely on the types of thoughts we think. When the deep limbic system is overactive, it sets the mind’s filter on "negative." If you could look into the thoughts of people who are depressed, you would find one dispiriting thought following another. When they look at the past, there is regret. When they look at the future there is anxiety and pessimism. In the present moment, something is most often unsatisfactory. The lens through which they see themselves, others, and the world has a dim grayness to it. They are suffering from Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs. ANTs are cynical, gloomy, and complaining thoughts that just seem to keep coming all by themselves.

ANTs can cause people to be depressed and fatalistic, which have a profound impact on their lives. "I know I won’t pass that test on Tuesday." This kind of thinking makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy: if they’ve already convinced themselves they won’t pass, they won’t study very hard and they won’t pass the test. This type of thinking severely limits a person’s ability to enjoy his or her life because how one thinks on a moment-to-moment basis plays a large role in how one feels and how one conducts one’s affairs. If you are depressed all the time, you don’t expect good things to happen so you don’t try very hard to make them happen. The internal distress from melancholy thinking can make you behave in ways that alienate others, thus causing you to isolate yourself further. On the other hand, positive thoughts and a positive attitude will help you radiate a sense of well being, making it easier for others to connect with you. Positive thoughts will also help you be more effective in your life. So, as you can see, what goes on in your mind all day long can determine whether your behavior is self-defeating or self-promoting.

Here are some examples of typical ANTs (automatic negative thoughts):
"You never listen to me."
"Just because we had a good year in business doesn’t mean anything."
"You don’t like me."
"This situation is not going to work out. I know something bad will happen."
"I feel as though you don’t care about me."
"I should have done much better. I’m a failure."
"You’re arrogant."
"You’re late because you don’t care."
"It’s your fault."

These thoughts severely limit a person’s ability to enjoy his or her life. How you think "moment-by-moment" plays a large role in how you feel (a deep limbic system function). Negative thoughts cause you to feel internal discomfort or pain and they often cause you to behave in ways that alienate from other people. Hopeful thoughts, on the other hand, influence positive behaviors and lead people to feel good about themselves and be more effective in their day-to-day lives. Hopeful thoughts also are involved in helping people connect with others.

Healing the deep limbic system requires a person to heal their moment-to-moment thought patterns. Unfortunately, there is no formal place where we are taught to think much about our thoughts or to challenge the notions that go through our head, even though our thoughts are always with us. Most people do not understand how important thoughts are, and leave the development of thought patterns to random chance. Did you know that every thought you have sends electrical signals throughout your brain? Thoughts have actual physical properties. They are real! They have significant influence on every cell in your body. When your mind is burdened with many negative thoughts, it affects your deep limbic system and causes deep limbic problems (irritability, moodiness, depression, etc.). Teaching yourself to control and direct thoughts in a positive way is one of the most effective ways to feel better.

Here are the actual step-by-step "thinking" principles that I use in my psychotherapy practice to help my patients heal their deep limbic systems.

STEP #1
Did you know…Every time you have a thought, your brain releases chemicals. That’s how our brain works…
you have a thought,
your brain releases chemicals,
an electrical transmissions goes across your brain and
you become aware of what you’re thinking.

Thoughts are real and they have a real impact on how you feel and how you behave.

STEP #2
Every time you have an angry thought, an unkind thought, a sad thought, or a cranky thought, your brain releases negative chemicals that make your body feel bad (and activate your deep limbic system). Think about the last time you were mad. How did your body feel? When most people are angry their muscles become tense, their hearts beat faster, their hands start to sweat and they may even begin to feel a little dizzy. Your body reacts to every negative thought you have.

Mark George, M.D., from the National Institutes of Mental Health, demonstrated this phenomena in an elegant study of brain function. He studied the activity of the brain in 10 normal women under three different conditions. He studied these women when they were thinking about happy thoughts, neutral thoughts and sad thoughts. During the happy thoughts, the women demonstrated a cooling of the deep limbic system. During the sad thoughts, he noticed a significant increase in deep limbic system activity. Powerful evidence that your thoughts matter!

STEP #3
Every time you have a good thought, a happy thought, a hopeful thought or a kind thought, your brain releases chemicals that make your body feel good (and cools your deep limbic system). Think about the last time you had a really happy thought. How did you feel inside your body? When most people are happy their muscles relax, their hearts beat slower, their hands become dry and they breathe slower. Your body also reacts to your good thoughts.

STEP #4
Your body reacts to every thought you have. We know this from polygraphs or lie detector tests. During a lie detector test, a person is hooked up to equipment that measures:
hand temperature,
heart rate,
blood pressure,
breathing rate,
muscle tension and
how much the hands sweat.

The tester then asks questions, like "Did you do that thing?" If the person did the bad thing his body is likely to have a "stress" response and it is likely to react in the following ways:
hands get colder,
heart goes faster,
blood pressure goes up,
breathing gets faster,
muscles get tight and
hands sweat more.

Almost immediately, his body reacts to what he thinks, whether he says anything or not. Remember, the deep limbic system is responsible for translating our emotional state into physical feelings of relaxation or tension. Now the opposite is also true. If he did not do the thing the tester asked about it is likely that his body will experience a "relaxation" response and react in the following ways:
hands will become warmer,
heart rate will slow,
blood pressure goes down,
breathing becomes slower and deeper,
muscles become more relaxed and
hands become drier.

Again, almost immediately, your body reacts to what you think. This not only happens when you’re asked about telling the truth, your body reacts to every thought you have, whether it is about work, friends, family or anything else.

STEP #5
Thoughts are very powerful. They can make your mind and your body feel good or they can make you feel bad. Every cell in your body is affected by every thought you have. That is why when people get emotionally upset, they actually develop physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches. Some physicians think that people who have a lot of negative thoughts are more likely to get cancer. If you can think about good things you will feel better.

Think of your body like an "ecosystem." An ecosystem contains everything in the environment like the water, the land, the cars, the people, the animals, the vegetation, the houses, the landfills, etc. A negative thought is like pollution to your system. Just as pollution in the Los Angeles Basin affects everyone who goes outside, so too do negative thoughts pollute your deep limbic system, your mind and your body.

STEP #6
Unless you think about your thoughts they are automatic or "they just happen." Since they just happen, they are not necessarily correct. Your thoughts do not always tell the truth. Sometimes they even lie to you. I once treated a college student who thought he was stupid, because he didn’t do well on tests. When his IQ (intelligence level) was tested, however, we discovered that he was close to a genius! You don’t have to believe every thought that goes through your head. It’s important to think about your thoughts to see if they help you or they hurt you. Unfortunately, if you never challenge your thoughts you just "believe them" as if they were true.

STEP #7
You can train your thoughts to be positive and hopeful or you can just allow them to be negative and upset you. Once you learn about your thoughts, you can chose to think good thoughts and feel good or you can choose to think bad thoughts and feel lousy. That’s right, it’s up to you! You can learn how to change your thoughts and you can learn to change the way you feel.

One way to learn how to change your thoughts is to notice them when they are negative and talk back to them. If you can correct negative thoughts, you take away their power over you. When you just think a negative thought without challenging it, your mind believes it and your body reacts to it.

STEP #8
As I mentioned above, negative thoughts are mostly automatic or they "just happen." That is why I call these thoughts "Automatic Negative Thoughts" or ANTs. Think of these negative thoughts that invade your mind like ants that bother a couple at a picnic. One negative thought, like one ant at a picnic, is not a big problem. Two or three negative thoughts, like two or three ants at a picnic, becomes more irritating. Ten or twenty negative thoughts, like ten or twenty ants at a picnic, may cause the couple to pick up and leave the picnic. Whenever you notice these automatic negative thoughts or ANTs you need to crush them or they’ll ruin your relationships, your self-esteem and your personal power. One way to crush these ANTs is to write them down and talk back to them. For example, if you think, "My husband never listens to me," write it down. Then write down a rational response; something like "He’s not listening to me now, maybe he’s distracted by something else. He often listens to me." When you write down negative thoughts and talk back to them, you take away their power and help yourself feel better. Some people tell me they have trouble talking back to these negative thoughts because they feel that they are lying to themselves. Initially, they believe that the thoughts that go through their mind are the truth. Remember, thoughts sometimes lie to you. It’s important to check them out before you just believe them!

Next week I will continue Dr Amen’s post and add an NVC twist…renaming ANTS from Automatic Negative Thoughts to Acknowledging Needs in Thoughts.

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