“The constant creeping of ANTs will wear away the stone.”
This old saying of unknown origin speaks to the incredible impact of even the smallest insects, over time, on the hardest surface. The constant grinding of small feet wears away even the most solid rock. Sadly, this is also true of our ANTs, those Automatic Negative Thoughts that constantly wear away at even the most confident self and contribute to challenges such as depression, social anxiety, and stress, anxiety and worry.
ANTs are not our personal automatic thoughts, but really types of thinking patterns that may be hidden in our private automatic thoughts. Over the years they’ve been called cognitive errors, thinking errors, cognitive distortions, or “stinkin’ thinkin’, though the latter term has been applied in various ways to various experiences (and why not?) Still, at the risk of confusing a few temporarily, I’m going to use the term ANTs because it sticks in our minds.
We discussed several types of ANTs last month in our blog post on mental health and the holidays. Here are more ANTs that you may recognize in your own life:
Fortune Telling – You possess a crystal ball, but unfortunately it only predicts negative things for you.
– If I go to a party, everyone will ignore me, just like what seemed to happen last time.
Labeling – Instead of calling a failure or unusual behavior a one-time incident, you generalize, and attach a sweeping, permanent label, whether this is about yourself or someone else. When you label, you don’t just observe your shortcoming, you draw general, negative conclusions from them.
– I couldn’t think of anything to say to a couple of people at the party. I’m such a social failure. I’m so awkward. (In truth, you probably do just fine in many other situations)
See also: How Heidi Overcame Her Social Anxiety with Online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Focus Only On the Bad – This is exactly what it sounds like. If four out of five people compliment the cake you made, you’ll focus on the fifth, turning a non-comment into a criticism. When you anticipate others opening gifts you’ve given them, for example, you might selectively recall only the image of the one dissatisfied gift opener and predict the same negative response with each gift you give in the future.
Feelings Make Fact – Feelings are complicated. Sometimes they are related to experiences or memories that you have from the past. Feelings are not necessarily truth – they are feelings.
– I am so uncomfortable at this family gathering, and I feel unattractive in this outfit. They must all think I am fat and ugly and unlovable. (Feeling unlovable does NOT mean you are.)
Not Helpful Thoughts – These are thoughts that may or may not be true, but dwelling on them does not serve a positive purpose.
– I’m not as physically fit as I used to be. I’ve gained weight, and I’m getting wrinkles. It’s hard getting older.
These statements may be true, but choosing to dwell on them won’t help you feel good and be in a state of mind where you can easily observe the pleasant things around you.
See also: The Relationship Between Depression and Social Anxiety
I hope these examples help you to better understand the thinking patterns (cognitive distortions, stinkin thinkin, cognitive errors) we refer to as ANTs. It’s a new year – what better time to work on new thought patterns? Get ready to squash those ANTs before they wear you down! Check back soon for a lesson on Data Collection – you’ll learn how to be a super sleuth of your own social situations which may help you address mental health challenges, including social anxiety, depression, or stress, anxiety and worry.