The alarm goes off and you hit the snooze. That repeats every 10 minutes or so until you get sick of it and turn the alarm off all the way, only to roll over yet again. It is not that you did not get enough sleep. It is not even really because you are tired. It is because you just do not want to face your day and it is not the first time. In your mind you hear, “Get up! You’re going to be late!” or “Your boss will not believe you are sick again. Get up!” or “You have people counting on you…the dog needs to be walked…the kids need to be fed…” Maybe you hear, “It’s a beautiful day! Get up and enjoy it!” Yet all you seem to be able respond is, “I don’t wanna.” This could be caused by a lot of things, but it definitely looks like a symptom of depression.
You have to give a presentation at work/school. It is super important to your job/grade. The boss/teacher will be watching closely. All your co-workers/classmates will be there too. As it gets closer to the time you get a lump in you stomach. You start having trouble catching a breath. Maybe you get light-headed or dizzy. You start to sweat…a lot! It is your turn and suddenly you feel like you are having a heart attack. That looks like a panic attack. Panic attacks are like a concentration of anxiety all at once.
Anxiety and Depression can come from many places. Often it comes from thoughts we have in our own minds that make us worry or doubt or feel bad about ourselves. Many of those thoughts are repeated in our heads often. We call them Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). Here are some examples of ANTs.
- All or nothing thinking: “If this interview doesn’t go well, I’ll never get a job.”
- Catastrophizing: “Worst day ever!
- Disqualifying the positive: “My mom liked my performance, but she has to. She’s my mom.”
- Jumping to conclusions: “Teacher doesn’t look happy. I must have failed the test.”
- Mind reading: “I can’t hear them, but I know they think my new dress is hideously ugly.”
- Overgeneralizing: “Everyone hates me.”
Imagine if a person kept hearing other people tell him or her that he or she is stupid or ugly or lazy or a disappointment. It would hurt! If that person heard it enough, they might start to believe it is true. That is exactly what happens with ANTs. They are thoughts that we “hear” in our heads over and over. Eventually we begin to believe the ANTs, which can lead to anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.
Do any of those ANTs from the list above sound familiar to you? If so, there is something you can do about them. Actually, there are several things you can do about them. Here is one. We call them automatic because it feels like they are powerful and unstoppable. They do have power, but they are not unstoppable.
You can take their power away from them. The first step to disempowering ANTs is to name them. Giving something a name is a really powerful thing. Parents often agonize over finding the right name for their children. It is seen as an honor to be the one that christens (names) a ship before its maiden voyage. People and companies with lots of influence (and/or money) get naming rights to buildings: Willis (ahem…Sears) Tower, Guaranteed Rate (you know…New Comisky) Field. Have you ever known someone to be relieved to find out they have cancer? It is a thing in some cases. The relief comes from having a name for whatever has been bothering them and therefore some idea of what to do next. Remember that really famous teenage wizard book series from Britain where most of the characters refused to say the bad guy’s name because they were all so afraid of him. Except the headmaster of the wizard school told the hero that saying the bad guy’s name gave the hero power over the bad guy. It did not solve the problem and defeat the bad guy, but (spoiler alert!) it was a good first step to doing so.
Just like the teenage wizard hero, you can claim more power over the ANTs in your head. Just pay attention to your thoughts and name them. I do not mean literally calling your thoughts “Joe” or “Carlita” or some other human name (although that could work too). The name you give them can be as simple as, “Hey, that’s an ANT.” Or you can be more specific like, “There I go talking down to myself again.“ Or if you are really savvy, “oh now I’m catastrophizing.” Once you recognize and name it, mentally wave at it and let it go on its way.
It will probably take some time and practice. Remember the first word in ANTs is “automatic.” ANTs are fast! So, you have to be intentional if you want to recognize them and name them. At first, they may try coming more often because you have confused them. With time and practice at just noticing them, naming them, and letting them go on their way, ANTs will come through less and less. With diligence, you may never see/hear them again. As you stop talking to yourself so negatively, your mood may improve.
It is important to know that this is not the only way to treat mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Nor may it be enough for a given individual. It does usually help though and most therapists are going to encourage you to do some form of this exercise as part of your treatment. So practice intentially paying attention to your thoughts. Especially notice the ones that seem automatic and negative. Name them to take some of their power. Then just let them go without focusing any more energy on them. See how it helps your outlook on the world and you “inlook” at yourself.