Do you have an ANT problem? Does your mind immediately go to the worst case scenario? While there’s nothing wrong with being prepared for every eventuality, spending too much time dwelling on things we can’t change can hold us back from moving forward. Here, Mind Fitness experts Andy Barker and Beth Wood share their insights into how to stop automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) in their tracks...

It may surprise you to know that almost all of us have a problem with ANTs. Scientists believe we have between 20,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day, but only about 5% of these are spent on the task in hand. The rest is ‘noise’, and a good deal of that is infested with automatic negative thoughts (or ANTs).

We all have a tendency to dwell on the past, and to replay situations in our mind that cannot be changed. We also spend a vast amount of time worrying about the future – or more accurately potential futures. But if we can adjust this perspective, we can utilise this time and energy better.

1. Watch your negative self-talk

A common type of noise is negative self-talk – the things we tell ourselves we can’t do, and the list is endless. Our self-criticism can be intensely personal and judgemental; we ‘say’ things to ourselves we would never say to anyone else. For some, this negative self-talk can be like living with a gremlin, who is always ready to leap out and attack.

woman with sad facial expression looking down

Both past and future noise, and negative self-talk, make ripe pickings for ANTs. One negative thought leads to another, which leads to another. Before you know it you’ve gone down the rabbit hole.

Learning to bring your thoughts back to the present moment is key. Visual, aural, physical, kinaesthetic and creative mindfulness exercises can help, such as going for a mindful walk, using the NOW technique to Notice, Observe and Wonder, or writing a gratitude journal.

2. Stop catastrophising!

Try shifting your perspective to keep the ANTs at bay. We all fall prey to cognitive bias – and one of the most common is the tendency to awfulise, or catastrophise. There are, of course, situations where terrible things do happen. But, we also often have a habit of sweating the small stuff, and see comparatively ‘trivial’ situations as worse than they are.

Awfulising is one of the strongest ANT magnets, drawing us down the spiral of often increasingly negative thoughts and emotions. Try to get into the habit of recognising the start of this cycle and asking yourself: ‘How bad is it, on a scale of 1 to 10?’ Take a step back from the situation to gain perspective.

When the really difficult things come along, for example when facing a bereavement, it is absolutely necessary to allow ourselves time to grieve and feel the sadness. But try to let yourself ‘sit’ with the emotion, rather than letting yourself become distracted by the ANTs that will attach themselves to it.

3. Write down positives

Shifting your perception of yourself can be powerful. For a week, write down the negative self-talk that comes to your mind. Beside each negative phrase, write the opposite – the positive equivalent. Don’t worry if you don’t believe it yet, still write it down. After a week, choose a few to change, and develop a positive affirmation for each, and repeat those sentences to yourself each day. It works best if it’s present tense – ‘I am...’ rather than ‘I will be...’ – and avoid double negatives, such as ‘I am not afraid of spiders.’

We change our mindset by building new neural pathways related to our new thoughts and beliefs; it takes about six weeks for the new pathway to become the stronger route as our brain always takes the path of least resistance, so give this time to work.

4. Keep doing mindful exercises

One way to repel ANTs is by doing a mindfulness exercise, which helps to reduce stress, and improves our focus and wellbeing.

Two people walking dog along path

Integrating mindful walking into your daily life is a great way to do this. When we do the same journey every day, it’s likely that we won’t notice much about it. When was the last time you were aware of your surroundings? The sights, the sounds, the smells?

Set off on your walk and be aware of your feet making contact with the ground. Is the surface hard or soft? What sound do your steps make? Now become aware of your breathing. Is it steady? Look around you. What do you see? The trees. Their shapes. If other thoughts come into your head, acknowledge them and return to focused observing. A functional walk becomes a restorative event.

‘Unlock You’, by Beth Wood and Andy Barker is out now (Pearson, £12.99). Visit mindfitness.training for more information, and find the book on Amazon.