Hello dear one, In a previous post, I wrote about 10 reversible causes of anxiety and depression and introduced the concept of cognitive distortions, a.k.a. stinkin’ thinkin’ or brain ANTS = Automatic Negative Thoughts.
No one is immune to these inaccurate thoughts that tend to pop into our heads and make us feel bad about ourselves. Having an awareness of brain ANTs and learning how to tame them is critical to our mental health and spiritual walk. Let’s delve a little deeper into this important topic…
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ – 2 Corinthians 10: 3-5 KJV
As Christians, we are called to pay close attention to our thought lives and address our cognitive distortions. Recognizing the lies of the enemy (e.g. you’re not good enough, you’re a total failure, things will never change) and replacing them with the truth according to God’s word (e.g. you’re perfect, whole and complete in Christ and God has a beautiful plan for restoration of your life).
In his book, Feeling Good, Dr. David Burns popularized the concept of cognitive distortions. Here’s a brief summary of ten common Brain ANTs that can pull us into the dark pit of depression and despair:
- All-or-Nothing Thinking—Looking at things in black or white categories. If you fall short of perfection, you tell yourself that you’re a complete failure. This distorted thinking can quickly escalate a minor problem to a full-scale catastrophe in your mind: “I failed this test so I’ll probably fail this class and have to drop out of school, won’t find a job and end up homeless living on the streets.”
- Overgeneralization—You see a painful and undesirable event—such as divorce, bankruptcy or failure to accomplish a specific goal—as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Here are two examples of this common cognitive distortion: “nobody likes me” and “I always ruin everything.”
- Mental Filtering—Magnifying a flaw, shortcoming or problem, and seeing it as a reflection of your entire self.
- Discounting the Positive—An even bigger lie is when you believe that your good qualities or achievements don’t matter, maintaining the false belief that you’re defective or a total failure.
- Jumping to Conclusions—This brain ANT involves making dire negative predictions about your future that aren’t supported by the facts. When you’re under stress or suffering with anxiety or depression this tends to happen a lot. You tell yourself that you’re situation is hopeless, you’ll be miserable forever or even that life isn’t worth living. We also jump to conclusions about what others are thinking about us. How often do you assume someone is mad at you or offended by you without even speaking to them and verifying your suspicions? You’d be surprised how often your worries are not based in reality. Most of the time people are busy dealing with their own problems and lives and their behavior really has nothing to do with you.
- Magnification and Minimization—Blowing things way out of proportion, or downplaying their importance.
- Emotional Reasoning—This brain ANT happens when we give our feelings too much credit without considering the facts and the bigger picture: “I FEEL hopeless, so my situation must BE hopeless.”
- Labeling–Calling yourself or others negative names like “lazy” or “a loser.”
- Overt and Hidden Should Statements—As in, “I SHOULDN’T have screwed up like that,” or “I SHOULD be better than I am.” When these condemning statements are directed against yourself, they tend to trigger feelings of depression, shame, guilt and inferiority. When directed against others, or against the world in general, these brain ANTs trigger anger, resentment and frustration.
- Blame—Self-Blame leads to despair and depression and blaming others breeds anger and strife.
So the big question is “how do we stop these brain ANTs?” Well, although we can’t stop the automatic thoughts altogether, we can prevent them from ruining our mental health.
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. -2 Timothy 1:7 KJV
Here are four steps to tame Brain ANTs and stop these destructive negative thoughts from escalating and affecting our mood and decisions:
- Pray: when you notice you are feeling down or anxious, simply pray for wisdom and discernment from the Holy Spirit to help you see the cognitive distortions.
- Record: write down your thoughts around the negative event. Do this in excruciating detail.
- Rationalize: address each irrational thought and try to label the cognitive distortion. Some brain ANTs may actually be rational, but most won’t. Then ask yourself, what’s the evidence for this response? Will the world end because of this?
- Replace: respond to each brain ANT. Learn to speak kind and compassionate words to yourself! Sadly, we’re usually much more rational and compassionate when talking to other people about their worries than we are with our own selves. Try to imagine what you’d say to a loved one struggling with this brain ANT. How would you comfort and encourage them? Finally, replace the ugly irrational thoughts with more rational ones that speak the truth about who you are in Christ.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4:8 KJV
Wishing you blessing on your healing journey. I invite you to join the Caring for the Body community and receive periodic e-mail updates from me with recipes, holistic health tips and encouragement on the topics of mental health, lifestyle medicine and Christianity. Please share this post with your friends?
Cynthia Libert, M.D.
P.S. For more insight into the healing power of addressing our brain ANTs, I encourage you to watch Dr. David Burns’ TEDx talk. It brought me to happy tears!