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Stop the ANTs in Your Head with These Three Exercises

ANTs—Automatic Negative Thoughts—are more than just an annoying occurrence. They can significantly impact your performance, productivity, self-esteem, and self-worth.

Negative thoughts can often be an almost inescapable part of your day-to-day life. It’s important to understand that not all negative thoughts are useless. Being able to think in terms of threats and risks, and experiencing fear and doubt are hard-wired into you from your evolutionary ancestors. These processes kept early humans alive and allowed them to survive. These tough patterns turn into a problem when it outgrows the purpose of keeping you safe and starts to sabotage productive areas of your life.

It’s one thing to be able to critically analyze a situation. But it’s another thing entirely when that analysis turns into a self-critic who sits in your head voicing an opinion on everything. This can seriously interfere with your relationships, life goals, daily tasks, and eventually, even reduce your brain’s ability to perform.

If you start to notice negative thoughts are taking over, there are ways you can silence that critic and move forward away from fear and doubt. Here are three exercises that can help you overcome negative self-talk and get these annoying (and often disabling) ANTs out of your head effectively.

Exercise 1: Answer the Critic Back

When the ANTs take over, they can elevate your stress and potentially put you in a state of fight-or-flight. It makes focusing difficult, but it disrupts your executive functioning and critical thinking skills as well.

The best way to counter fear, particularly emotional fear, is by taking control over the narrative. You have to question if the things your inner critic is saying are true. And once you’re able to discern what is a valid concern and what isn’t, you can take steps to work towards solutions rather than spiraling in worry, fear, and doubt.

This exercise attempts to shock your bullying critic by challenging it, which forces it into unfamiliar territory where it will be less effective.

The steps:

  1. Take out a pen/pencil and some paper.
  2. Write down all the negative things that your brain is churning up at that moment. Let the thoughts spill from your mind to the paper, but write them in second person, as if someone is telling them to you. For example, “That idea is stupid”, “You’ll never reach that goal”, or “You’re not succeeding in your job”.
  3. Even though it feels counterintuitive, read what you’ve written.
  4. Now, take a new piece of paper and line it up with what your critic said.
  5. Answer each statement, in the strongest possible words and in the first person. For example, “My idea is fantastic” and list all the reasons why.
  6. Don’t hold back when it comes to your replies and allow yourself to feel the emotions that standing up for yourself brings up. No matter how awkward or difficult, don’t stop until you finish answering each of your negative thoughts back.
  7. When you’re done, take the time to read the negative comments and your answers together. Pay attention to the truth and emotion in your responses. You can even go one step further and tear up or cross out the negative thoughts.
  8. Focus on the boost of positivity and confidence your positive words give you.

Exercise 2: Creative Visualization

Sometimes words on a page isn’t enough and using your imagination can help. Countering fear and doubt with logic is one strategy, but you can also fight it by pointing out how ridiculous that inner critic is being. This helps externalize the voices in your head by giving them a visual or verbal identity. And by turning that voice into a different person with exaggerated attributes, it can help reduce the fear by taking away the power that voice holds.

The steps:

  1. This one can be done in a variety of ways. You can draw cartoon characters or stick figures. If you’re not artistically inclined, you can simply visualize your inner critic in your mind.
  2. Now, give your critic embellished traits. Draw in wild, green hair, or spaghetti coming out of their nose. Imagine that they have a high-pitched squeaky voice, like they just sucked helium out of a balloon. The more outlandish the better.
  3. Write down your negative thoughts or imagine they’re being spoken by your critic. Hear their cartoon voice in your head. Does the spaghetti flop around as they’re talking? Are dogs howling at their high-pitched voice?
  4. If that person was standing in front of you, would you take their words seriously? Odds are, you wouldn’t. So why would you take their word now?
  5. You can take this exercise one step further by imagining or drawing someone you admire and respect. This can be a trusted friend, a mentor, or a teacher.
  6. Imagine how they would respond to this person. What would they say to their criticisms? Write those down or imagine their response.
  7. In the moment of negative self-talk, we often feel alone and insecure. Remembering our friends and imagining them defending us is a powerful thought experiment that can bring our sense of security and confidence back.

Exercise 3: Advise Yourself as You Would Advise a Friend

Imagine telling your best friend that they were a failure. Or your child that they should just quit what they love. This probably sounds horrifying to you. But you should stop and ask why it’s okay to tell yourself these same things.

If someone you care about is going through a period of self-doubt, you obviously don’t reinforce those beliefs. You encourage them and help them work through their fears and doubts. It’s obvious when it’s someone else that the problem isn’t them but simply the voice in their head damaging their confidence. This exercise is intended to do the exact same thing for yourself.

The steps:

  1. Imagine your best friend or someone close to you going through the exact situation you are at the moment. The big project at work is actually something your mom is dealing with. The assignment due is something your best friend has been working on.
  2. Again, you can write these thoughts down or simply imagine going through them, but remember all of your thoughts are now coming from this person you care about.
  3. Imagine this person telling you all the negative things about herself that you tell yourself.
  4. How would you respond to them? How would you help them reframe their thoughts?
  5. Write down as many responses as you can think of for each negative thought.
  6. When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to get caught up in negative thoughts, but it’s important to remember that you deserve love and empathy as much as your loved ones.
  7. You can look back on this exercise and find repetitive thoughts that you struggle with the most. By turning those criticisms into daily affirmations, you can make this exercise of empathy and self-love even more powerful.

Conclusion

Everyone deals with ANTs from time to time, but when you notice that they’re overwhelming, or are interfering with your ability to move foward or be productive, you want to squish them once and for all. These three exercises can be done through daily journaling and customized so that they work best for you. The more you practice silencing your inner critic, the faster you can shut off your ANTs effectively and efficiently.

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