When I was working in an inpatient mental health unit, I began an effort to focus groups on evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). We needed a topic that busy nurses could lead on Sunday nights. We picked one that was simple, but very useful: automatic negative thinking traps (ANTs).
Many group members were new to the concept of ANTs, but I noticed that people remembered it. Even if they forgot everything else, ANTs stuck.
What ANTs Really Are
ANTs aren’t the same as the emotion-causing thoughts, like I’m going to fail this test or they don’t respect me. They are the categories of problems that we can find in our thoughts. Some people refer to ANTs as automatic negative thoughts. But at Learn to Live we call them automatic negative thinking traps. We do this to avoid confusion with the specific thought.
We are all familiar with ANTs. We experience them all the time. Here are a few examples:
- Fortune-telling—when I think I know what will happen in the future
- Mind reading—when I think I know what someone else is thinking or why they did something
- Shoulds—when I believe that there is a specific thing I should have said or done…or others should have…like it’s there is a written in stone…and I dwell on that
There are many processes for examining our thoughts, but I have learned that it usually makes sense to start with ANTs. They are just easier to remember. The lightbulb can go on when someone realizes “Wait a second. The thought that I’ve just identified has an ANT in it. I can see the problems with it and I can let go of it.” When that happens, it is a beautiful thing.
Think about a driver who is feeling stressed about other drivers on the road. They might realize that they were not only mind reading when they thought “Those other drivers disrespect me”. They were falling into disaster-making. Thinking of a stranger’s opinion as a disaster is not useful. Especially when they’ll never see that person again. This same goes for the student who finds themselves doing all or nothing thinking when they suddenly realize that getting a B is not failing. It’s not an A and but it’s also not an F. And realizing that can be relieving.
Free from Frozen Thoughts
For many people, counting the number of times they catch themselves with ANTs like shoulds or fortune-telling can be useful. When they catch themselves doing those things, they are often able to change to more useful thinking patterns. And with that experience, they can be freed from the thoughts that got them stuck.
Yes, CBT has many more strategies, but something as simple as ANTs can have great power.