Fight Back Negativity

A Journey Through Health was originally meant to be a blog about health issues I felt comfortable talking about – things I see and treat commonly but also indirectly reflecting on my own journey through health. My job involves me working with a lot of substance abusers – hence the article on weed, and my own fitness journey led me to write up about insulin sensitivity.

However, today’s blog ties in both my professional and private aspirations – and that is my personal sense of calm, positivity and happiness. Don’t get me wrong – I do not struggle with depression or any particular mood disorder, however, I can’t help but notice the older I get, the cynic insides me grows a little more. In addition to that – I now worry more frequently, partly about progression, if I’m doing enough to maintain my relationships, and a large part of “adult-ing.”

You can argue that ‘worrying’ is essential to being responsible and I’d have to agree – we all need some level of anxiety otherwise we’d probably never get anything done. Too much, though, can start to erode our genuine personalities and eventually become counter-productive. I often find that when I have to do something I’m not motivated to do  while also feeling glum about doing it – I’ll make more mistakes, get careless, see the task as daunting and feel mentally tired just doing and completing the task. Yet when I am doing something I have to do and almost want to do it, my perspective and energy are totally different. Things just work.

Recently I’ve been reading “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life,’ by Daniel Amen – a psychiatrist who you might have seen on a TEDx talk video. His approach to treatment with depression and anxiety is to support his clients with the least amount of medical intervention as possible. His therapies included supplements, exercise, diet modifications, and psychotherapy. While each discipline is worth talking about by itself, today I’m focusing on the psychological approach.

We first need to understand a concept (he seemingly coined): Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANT). At first it sounds gimmicky – I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, “I know what a negative thought is already.” Some folks might think that a strong willpower will overcome negativity, but it’s never that easy.

What’s interesting about theses ANTs (as he calls them) is that negative thoughts in isolation are hardly a problem. The problem occurs when we don’t challenge the negative thought and stop it from escalating.

Take for example, a rapid spiral:
“I’m not making any more money, this is all I can ever seem to make” (Thought 1)
“Eventually I won’t be able keep up with my bills and mortgage” (Thought 2).
“My spouse will leave me” (3) …
“I’ll be alone” (4) …
“I’ll have to crash with family” (5) …
“I’m sure I’ll be a burden to them” (6) …
“I don’t want to be a problem to anyone – maybe things would be better off if I didn’t even exist” (7)

We all know how fast our brain thinks – I had to force myself to generate those thoughts and it took less than a minute. That’s seven very bad thoughts in less than a minute. You can imagine I or anyone else wouldn’t feel too great after generating seven depressing thoughts in a short space of time. For someone with more serious problems, let’s say – deep financial crisis – it’s easy for these thoughts to not only go further but loop constantly – zapping their energy to fight and sending them to emotional states they don’t want to be in.

I’ll leave the classification and breakdown of the ANTs to Dr. Amen, but I will show you the general strategy of dealing with these ANT’s. The CHIEF Principle is that your thoughts aren’t always true. Your brain is constantly generating thoughts and your brain can LIE TO YOU. Just because we thought of something, doesn’t mean that it is true. While the thought itself might be nothing more than a random manifestation – the emotions that usually comes attached to it are very real. If you really start to question a negative thought – you might realize that the thought doesn’t really have a strong basis, and if you take the time to deal with it you might skip the negative feelings attached to them.

There’s a reason for this “brain generating randomness” that some science might help with: Neurotransmitters in the brain can influence how thoughts are generated – so in other words – your thoughts aren’t always in your control. These neurotransmitters don’t respond immediately to your conscious self – this is why you can’t will yourself to feel a certain way. (There are mental exercises you can do to help change your mood but for the most part, you can’t say –I’m going to not feel sad and feel really happy then, POOF – you’re on cloud nine.)

This is where questioning our thoughts come in. While we can’t really fight the negativity that is generated within us (at least not in the moment), we can fight against it escalating. I’m not going to lie, it takes a lot of work and self-reflection to identify a negative thought – they have a way of creeping in-between normal day to day routines. Chances are you’ll end up feeling a certain way before identifying that little ANT came along.

However, here is an approach you can take developed by Byron Katie called the Work. I find it particularly helpful because it can be used in both a thought journal or on the spot. The main requirement is that you be as accurate as you can with the questioning, and try to not let feelings dictate how you question yourself.

Here are the 4 questions used to challenge your ANT:

1. It is true?
2. Can I absolutely know that it is true?
3. How do I react when I think that thought?
4. Who would I be without that thought? Or how would I feel if I didn’t have that though?

It might be easier to understand how to digest an ANT with a visual example, so I present Attack on ANTs!

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You can follow up further:   Turn that negativity around.

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What I like about this approach is that anyone who has to deal with negativity can use this strategy. You might not even have to follow through to the turnaround phase. Arguably you might get a full cathartic effect that the thought is not true, and you’re a better person without it.

In conclusion, I’d like to summarize

⇒Negativity seeps into our lives every day
⇒Our brains generate thoughts based on its neurochemistry
⇒These thoughts may not be a true reflection of your rational self
⇒Identify these Automatic Negative Thoughts, and WORK them out of your life.

I sincerely hope this helps someone get through a rough day, we all have our struggles and if you or someone you know reaches a point where they can’t cope – please find professional help. If you live in Trinidad, I can always help direct you to professionals.

Stay Positive!

Disclaimer: Much can be said about the work of Dr. Daniel Amen, the psychiatrist mentioned in the article above. Please note despite referencing his book in this article, I am not endorsing his products or services. The strategy outlined above is one I find to be universally applicable, however, there are some persons out there who need urgent professional medical help. In such cases, no blog\book will suffice – seek the necessary help.

Submitted by: Dr. Surajiv Gooljar

Dr. Surajiv Gooljar is a General Practitioner in Trinidad and Tobago, combining health and fitness, with coaching and lifestyle solutions.

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