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Struggling to be hopeful? Take care of your ‘ANT’ problem

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Here’s an effective strategy to help regain joy after loss, discouragement, or another heartbreaking event.

“I’m a failure as a mom.” 

“I will never find happiness again.”

“I could have done something more to stop this from happening.” 

Those were the thoughts that raced through my head after my husband and I lost our honeymoon baby, Marion, to miscarriage at eight weeks. You wouldn’t have guessed it, but I’m normally a very hopeful person. In fact, people usually complement me on my ability to see the good in things and find the silver lining. But in the days and weeks following our miscarriage, I struggled with being able to see any kind of hope. Instead, negative thoughts filled my mind and took over my day.

When my normal methods of being hopeful failed, I decided to see a counselor to work through the feelings of grief, loneliness, and hopelessness. During our first meeting, I described the negative thoughts that I had after losing our son.

My counselor reached over to his bookshelf and pulled out a small booklet. “I think you have an ANT problem,” he told me. He handed me a worksheet and explained that the thoughts I was struggling with after losing Marion were Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs. ANTs were the depressing, pessimistic thoughts that kept coming into my thoughts throughout the day.

I learned that thoughts can be either positive or negative. But sometimes thoughts become more negative than positive, and when that happens, you have to make some changes in order to not sink into depression. After our first session, my counselor gave me some homework; he wanted me to talk back to my thoughts. I thought that sounded a little ridiculous, but after I went home and read the booklet all the way though, I realized he was right.

Most thoughts automatically pop into our heads — and just because we think them doesn’t mean that they’re true. Even though I thought I was a failure of a mom because of the miscarriage, that was not reality. When thoughts are negative, they can be labeled as ANTs. Just like ants in my kitchen, I can usually deal with one or two ANTs by myself. I just need to find something bigger than they are and squash them. But when ANTs took over my entire thought systems, they got out of hand and started affecting relationships with myself, my husband, and friends. I had an ANT problem and I needed to find a solution. I didn’t want those thoughts taking control of my mind!

Studies show that thinking self-disparaging thoughts (“I’m a failure”) can then encourage self-demeaning emotions (hopelessness, loneliness) that then can actually cause harmful actions (withdrawing from community, not seeking help). So, if ANTs are allowed to roam free in your mind, this could lead to much more harmful conditions such as depression or anxiety.

There are nine different species of ANT thoughts and each cause havoc if left unchecked:

ANT 1: Always or Never Thinking
These thoughts include words like always, never, no one, everything.

ANT 2: Focusing on the Negative
This ANT only lets you see the bad parts of a situation.

ANT 3: Fortune Telling
When you find yourself always predicting an awful event, you may be struggling with this ANT.

ANT 4: Mind Reading
When you think you know what someone is thinking about your or your situation, this ANT is taking over.

ANT 5: Thinking With Your Feelings
Instead of realizing you have control over your thoughts, this ANT encourages you to let your thoughts take control.

ANT 6: Guilt Beatings
When re-thinking a situation, this ANT only lets you focus on what you could have done better or should have done differently.

ANT 7: Labeling
This ANT tells you to label yourself or others.

ANT 8: Personalization
Instead of seeing a situation as harmless, you personalize the event.

ANT 9: Blame
This is the worst ANT of all, and it involves blaming someone else for your problems.

Whenever I noticed an ANT crawling around in my thoughts, I stopped what I was doing and wrote it down. When I was able to get the ANTs out of my head and onto paper, I could talk back to them and take away any power they had over my mood.

First, I would check for a common ANT problem. If I saw a pattern of always or never thinking, I would be able to tackle it easier the next time one of those thoughts came to mind. Then I collected evidence to prove that thought wrong. When I thought “I’m never going to be happy again,” I would write down all of the things that had brought me joy that day. And finally I’d challenge the original thought. I’d say out loud “I will be happy again. Today I was happy when I saw a good friend and found a great book to read.” Studies show that saying things out loud helps them imprint into your mind quicker. Talking a problem through out loud is closely related to being able to solve a problem.

After squashing a lot of ANTs through journaling and counseling, I’m slowly regaining my joy.

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