ANTS AND ELEPHANTS
Well, it’s been awhile. I’ve been a bit under the weather lately and haven’t posted anything as I’ve dealt with illness. Now, I have a PICC line, through which I am receiving antibiotics, and the magic medicine is starting to work, so…I’m back..
This current illness has prompted several ideas for blog posts, although up until now, I haven’t had the energy to act on the ideas. One topic that comes up frequently when I deal with my cystic fibrosis and it’s ever-present ups and downs is what my mind does with the very simple information that my body is not perfect.
Do you have ANTs? By ANTs, I mean automatic negative thoughts. Do you remember the last time you watched a colony of ants, as the workers stream in perfect lines to and from the ant colony with the single goal of procuring food and whatever else an ant needs to live a good ant life. Perfect, tiny little single file lines of ants, determined to stay in line and do what is expected for an ant to do.
This is the way unhelpful thoughts travel in your brain. They are a series of repetitive synapses that have traveled the same neuronal pathways in your brain so many times that they have worn grooves in the sand of your brain. Now, they are automatic, as are their emotional and behavioral consequences. So it is very appropriate for the acronym for “automatic negative thoughts” to be A.N.T. I’ve read that humans have about 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day, and that 90% of them are repeats. We think the same things, over and over and over. It reminds me of that ant in a single file line, doing exactly what the ant in front of him/her (probably him I guess) does, without question.
Here are some examples of my ANTs: “This disease sucks. You just got through two months of P90X, only to have to stop! You’ll never get through this 3 month program. IV”s again? I (sometimes I’m “you” and sometimes I’m “I” If you lived in my brain, you would have me committed.) already had 3 weeks of IV’s just a few months ago…My CF is progressing. My lung function probably stinks right now…God, what if it doesn’t come back. What if I am now on that downhill slope? Oh man, I am coughing so hard…what if I start to bleed and never stop? No one is here to help if I have massive hemoptysis…what would I do? WHAT? 103 pounds…oh no… You’re disappearing. How can you be losing so much weight? What does THAT mean? Do you now have to deal with CFRD and insulin, too? That would really suck. You know Julie, that CFRD usually means worsening of CF. The good days are over. Your luck has run out….” and on and on and on
They are automatic. I don’t try to think them. They just happen. And they’ve happened before. It doesn’t seem to matter to my brain that it is thinking useless, negative thoughts that it has already informed me of a million times, thank you. They keep on coming. I’ve tried to stop them..but that definitely does NOT work! You can’t successfully tell yourself not to think something. Just try…right now, try to NOT think of a pink elephant lying belly up in your living room. See? You can’t do it. Just by imagining what you don’t want to think, you think it.
But I’ve learned a trick in dealing with these thoughts. It’s come with practicing mindfulness, which simply means being aware of what is happening while it is happening. In other words, I’m watching my thoughts. And at the same time, I am watching what my body feels in response to these thoughts. It’s not pretty. What I see is a direct connection between negative thoughts and bad feelings. “Duh,” you say. “That’s a no-brainer!” Exactly. These processes occur below the level of your “brain,” or consciousness. But when you become conscious of them, something pretty cool happens. It turns out that you can’t be fully conscious of something you are doing that is harming you, and continue doing it. When you directly experience the fact that negative thoughts lead to bad feelings, you will appreciate that you have direct control of how you feel. All you need to do is decide to think alternative, more positive thoughts.
So instead of, “Your lung function probably sucks right now!” I can gently decide (consciously) to change the thought to, “Yes, my lungs are a bit under the weather now…..and that is why I am taking care of them by resting and infusing wonder drugs. Thank God I have health insurance and access to great health care!” The ANT will try to take over, and I will have to be very alert for this, as the grooves run deep. But as long as I catch them, I can always substitute a life and health affirming thought for the negative one. Over time, the affirming thought grooves will deepen and the negative grooves will smooth over from disuse.
Try to catch your ANTs. Remember, don’t try to force them away (remember the elephant). When you catch and ANT, replace him with an affirming thought that carries with it positive feelings. Is this Pollyanna, New Age garble thinking? I don’t know. But would you rather feel bad, anxious, worried and depressed, or hopeful and grateful for what is good in your life? Which feelings do you think are healthier overall and better for you? Does being depressed and worried help you in any way at all? Will it change the outcome? I would argue that being optimistic and grateful can change the outcome…for the better. So why not give it a try?