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Automatic Negative Thoughts: Got ANTS on the Brain?

Numbers bandied about from many sources indicate that adults have somewhere between 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day. Most are repetitive and many are negative. Two important questions call to be answered:

  1. Where do the thoughts originate?
  2. What are we to do with them?

The response to the first comes from a portion of the brain known as the claustrum. It is defined as, “a thin, irregular, sheet-like neuronal structure hidden beneath the inner surface of the neocortex.” It is connected to the switching on of thoughts.

The response to the second is equally complicated. As I am writing this article, my mind is awash in multiple thoughts that pull my attention from the task at hand. I have long believed that I have undiagnosed ADHD. Throughout any given day, my mental meanderings take me from what is before me to distractions such as wondering how I will handle pending challenges, to what issues my clients will bring to our sessions, from creative ideas beckoning me to act on them to the question of whether I want to go to the gym to sweat it out or go back to sleep. Some days it seems like I am herding kittens who are determined to sneak out of the house. I chalk it up to the aging process by which the thoughts leak through the holes in my sieve-like brain. I say that the hard drive gets full and that the issue is not storage, but retrieval. I am laughing as I realize that my mind is very much like the computer on which I am typing with multiple tabs open as I research.

In Buddhist practice, it is referred to as the monkey mind that chatters and leaps from tree to tree, as is its nature and is considered, “unsettled, restless, capricious, whimsical; fanciful, inconstant, confused; indecisive, uncontrollable”. I liken it to the children’s game called Barrel of Monkeys. That plastic container in primary colors filled with little simians with curved tails and arms challenges players to pick up as many of them in a chain as possible without dropping them. The frustration is that sometimes more than one monkey climbs on board when attempting to gather up one at a time. It is often that way with our thoughts. How many are clamoring for our attention and how do we properly address them without being inundated?

It gets even more complicated and daunting when they are ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). Dr. Daniel Amen who is the author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Lifecoined this term in the early 1990’s after a hard day at the office, during which he had several very difficult sessions with suicidal patients, teenagers in turmoil, and a married couple who hated each other.

When he got home that evening, he found thousands of ants in his kitchen. As he started to clean them up, an acronym developed in his mind. He thought of his patients from that day – just like the infested kitchen, his patients’ brains were also infested by Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) that were robbing them of their joy and stealing their happiness.”

Many of my clients profess to having swarms of ANTs to deal with. Anxiety is a common thread for them that range from worries about health, to attempting to navigate the relationship waters, from concerns in the workplace to determining how to get through each day with some semblance of intact sanity. We work our way through them via challenging the validity of their thoughts. Often, they blame themselves for what they can’t control and sometimes deflect responsibility for what they might have done differently. Incorporating CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), they are becoming adept at leading the ANTs out the door.

We also utilize a four- step process that is a valuable portable tool to offer an alternative.

  • Facts – what really happened?
  • Perception- how they see it.
  • Judgment- what they make it mean.
  • Action to resolve them- steps to make positive change.

Often the thoughts will dissolve and the ANTS scatter when these steps are applied.  

An example:

Someone believes that they will never succeed in their field of endeavor because they haven’t by the expected point in their life. They applied for a job for which they weren’t hired. The prevailing thought was that they were ill equipped or otherwise not worthy of the position. Fact is, they didn’t get the job. Perception is, “I am flawed and incompetent.” Judgment is, “I will never be good enough for this or any job that I want.” The action step is to re-write the narrative, revise their approach, that might include making a list of their positive attributes and skill sets to bring to the table, and be more prepared for the next opportunity.

Coming clean while cleaning up the ANTS in my brain:

  • When I am complimented on my skills, I sometimes default to, “Yeh, right…if I’m all that and a bag of chips, then how come I’m not more successful by worldly standards and rolling in the dough?”
  • As I embark on new ventures, I have tended to doubt that I will execute them flawlessly. (Who told me that anything has to be flawless?)
  • Looking over my shoulder to note if the ‘propriety police’ are watching to see if I am indeed ‘doing it right’.
  • Worry about forgetting important information.
  • Waiting for the other shoe to drop.
  • Anticipating disapproval.
  • Falling prey to ‘not enough-it -is’ and imposter syndrome.

Tools to bring the monkey-mind to quietude and shoo the ants away:

  • Breathing with a feather in front of your nose. Imagine you are inhaling your favorite scent and breathe out slowly as if blowing out birthday candles.
  • Place one hand on your forehead and the other on the occipital ridge behind your head as if giving it a gentle hug. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth and sigh.
  • Lay one hand on your belly and the other in your heart and inhale through your nose and out through your mouth as you imagine connecting the two body parts.
  • Hold both hands open in front of you, palms up as if you are cupping water. Then take each thumb and one by one touch on each finger slowly as you say to yourself, “I am peaceful.”, “I am relaxed.”, “I am calm now.”  and, “All is well now.”

Marching those ANTs out one by one.

Automatic Negative Thoughts: Got ANTS on the Brain?


Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author. www.opti-mystical.com


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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2019). Automatic Negative Thoughts: Got ANTS on the Brain?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/automatic-negative-thoughts-got-ants-on-the-brain/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 May 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 May 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.