Did you know that adults have between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts each and every day?  Out of these 80,000, a majority of these thoughts are repetitive and a large amount of them are negative.  Based on this information, two concerns come to mind:

  1. Where do these thoughts come from?
  2. What are we supposed to do with these thoughts?

The answer to the initial question emerges from a section of the brain called the claustrum.  It is described as, “a thin, irregular, sheet-like neuronal structure hidden beneath the inner surface of the neocortex.”  It’s associated with the switching on of thoughts.

The answer to the next question is similarly involved.  While working on this article, my mind is flooded by thoughts that continuously hog my attention.  Every day, my wandering thoughts distract me from what’s in front of me. There are days where my thoughts make it feel like I’m herding cats trying to scurry out of the house.  I blame it on the aging process. I chuckle as I envision my mind as the computer I am typing on, with multiple tabs open on my browser.

In Buddhist tradition, it is called the monkey mind that babbles and jumps from tree to tree, as is its nature and is considered, “unsettled, restless, capricious, whimsical; fanciful, inconstant, confused; indecisive, uncontrollable”.  I compare it to the children’s game known as Barrel of Monkeys. The game contains a plastic barrel loaded with small, colorful monkeys that have rounded tails and arms. The game tasks players to pick up as many monkeys in a link as they can while trying not to lose any of them.  The frustrating part is when more than one monkey climbs aboard, since the rules require you to pick up one monkey at a time. It is often like this with our thoughts too. How many of our thoughts are demanding us for our focus and how do we correctly deal with them to avoid an overwhelming experience?

It becomes even more challenging when your thoughts are ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts).  Dr. Daniel Amen, author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life “coined this term in the early 1990s 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.”

A lot of my clients affirm to possessing armies of ANTs to manage.  Anxiety is a prevalent thread for them, as they try to maneuver the relationship waters, from worries in the office to identifying ways to survive every day with some form of undamaged sanity.  As people, we work our way through ANTs by testing the credibility of our thoughts. Frequently, we criticize ourselves for what we cannot control and, in some cases, disperse accountability for things we can control and could’ve done differently.  Including CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), are ways to become proficient at leading the ANTs out the door.

This four-step process is a valuable portable tool.

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

When using this tool, frequently the thoughts will disperse, and the ANTS disseminate when these steps are applied.  

Here’s a sample:

A person believes they won’t be successful in their field of work because they haven’t experienced the success they strive for, to this point.  They’ve applied for positions they felt qualified for, yet they weren’t hired. They have an overwhelming sense of unworthiness. Fact of the matter is, they did not receive a job offer.  Their perception of this 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 (maybe make a list of their positive attributes and quality skills they possess), and be ready for their next opportunity, because one will come.

Confessing all while tidying up the ANTs in my brain:

  • When I am praised based on the skills I possess, I occasionally default to, “Yeah, 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?”
  • While I embark on new undertakings, I have tended to doubt that I will execute them flawlessly. 
  • Looking over my shoulder to note if the ‘propriety police’ are watching to see if I am indeed ‘doing it right’.
  • Worrying about forgetting important information.
  • Waiting for the other shoe to drop.
  • Anticipating disapproval.
  • Falling prey to imposter syndrome.

Tools to bring the monkey-mind to tranquility 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 on 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.”

Filing those ANTs out one by one.