How the Way You Talk to Yourself Changes Your Brain

Nov 18, 2020

Are you struggling with negative self-talk? Whether you're going through an election, in lockdown, or struggling with any other aspect that life throws at you, your Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) can really affect your brain and how you show up.

Find out how you can take back control in my interview with Donna Lalwani at the Amen Clinics.


Dr. Daniel Amen, founder and CEO of Amen Clinics, coined the term ANTs out of his own personal experience when working with a patient and coming home and seeing an ant infestation.

During COVID-19 he expressed that mental hygiene is just as important as hand-washing, so it's time to disinfect our thoughts and kill the ANTs, those Automatic Negative Thoughts, to overcome anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief.

Every time we have a sad or hopeless or angry unkind, judgmental or helpless thought, our brain can immediately release chemicals that can make our body feel pretty awful. We have this sort of this visceral response, from maybe muscle tension, our heart beats faster, our breath could become shallower, and our hands can get cold.

Negative thoughts really affect how we show up. When Dr Ruth was a student she had an ANT infestation in her head and it started appearing as dandruff in her hair because of the stress she was putting herself under. It wasn't until she dealt with that infestation and subsequent stress that she'd caused herself that she was really able to help heal herself and move forward in life.

It's really important that we recognize the warning signs of having an ANT infestation in our head, and we listen to what we're saying to ourselves and challenge what we're saying to ourselves. As Daniel Amen says, not everything we tell ourselves is true. So we don't have to listen to every stupid thought we have.

The negative thoughts too can affect our brain's activity. It's important that we understand how our ANTs are affecting our body and mind, so that we can support ourselves for better resiliency. So let's talk about things that we can do about this.

Squashing the ANTs

The first thing is to really get curious with what you're telling yourself on a daily basis - to understand the thoughts that you're having.

A lot of Dr Ruth's clients have automatic negative thoughts and don't actually check in with the thoughts that they have in their mind. They just come to the surface sub-consciously and they don't take the time to really think about what they're saying to themselves.

So first is to write those thoughts down and get them out on paper so that you can really look at them subjectively, almost from a third party perspective. That then empowers you to activate your prefrontal cortex - the logical part of your brain, and challenge those thoughts.

Get those thoughts out of your head onto paper! Stop them ruminating around so you have the power to challenge those thoughts yourself.

Once those thoughts are out on paper, you can challenge them asking the following five questions developed by Byron Katie:

  1. Is that thought true?
  2. Is it 100% true?
  3. How do I feel with that thought?
  4. How would I feel without that thought?
  5. Turn that thought around to the opposite, and ask 'is that more true?'

So let's start with the example, "I'm not good enough."

Is that thought true - possibly? Is it 100% true - no! You may be struggling with a particular aspect of your life at the moment. That doesn't mean you're not good enough. It just means that you may need to learn more. You may need to ask for help.

How do you feel with that thought? Probably pretty rubbish, down in the dumps or hopeless. It's not helping your emotional state. Your emotional state drives your physical state and all of the associate chemical reactions that we have as a consequence of the thoughts we tell ourselves.

How would you feel without that thought? Typically that feeling is much more positive, much more helpful, much more hopeful. It's driven by logic and perspective. That really starts to empower you to take back control of these ANTs.

What's the turn around of that thought? In the example the turnaround would be, "I am good enough." Then you go search for the aspects that justify that statement. You decide what you need to do to move yourself forward, to feel even better than 'good enough' so that you're back at the helm of your emotional ship. You have the power back and you've got control of those thoughts.

Different chemicals in our brains can be released when we feel happy, hopeful, loving, kind, or have positive thoughts. So when challenging ANTs our hands might get warmer, our breathing may become deeper, our muscles may relax, our blood pressure may decrease.

Your brain has the opportunity to work better and perform better, and that's what we're about. Performing at our best, feeling that we're optimizing our health and our wellness, instead of letting things take us along the water out of control.

That's so important for our health and wellbeing these days. Particularly in our current situation, in lockdown, a lot of ANTs are driven by fortune telling, trying to predict the outcome as to what's going to happen, what the future may hold.

Let's take the election as an example in the States, or when are we going to get out of lockdown? What's that going to look like? Telling ourselves all these negative connotations associated with that.

We can't predict the future, but we can shape our future by taking action now.

That's what we need to focus our attention on - what we are in control of now, rather than allowing our negative thoughts, the fortune telling ANTs that are unhelpful to us, to control our mind.

The stress hormone cortisol is a classic - it affects our brain cells. It kills memory cells in our hippocampus. So it's really important that we do take the time to learn how we can squash those ANTs.

Helping the next generation

We're not just talking either in this instance about adults, this works for children as well. Dr Daniel Amen has written a brilliant book called Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions, which teaches children how they can challenge that automatic negative thoughts and squash the ANTs.

My clients have used this, children that I've been coaching, and they find that really helpful. So challenging the ANTs isn't just a responsibility for us as adults, but also empowering children, the next generation, to do the same.

We're seeing this massive rise in anxiety and depression and in the youth population, with increase suicide rates. It's vital that we use these tools that we have in our toolbox to squash the ANTs so that we don't get ourselves in a position where we do feel completely hopeless, and that we empower children to do the same.

Further support

If you'd like to find out more about how I can help you, register for your FREE Unleashed Strategy Call.

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