“For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7a, NKJV)
You can’t control what other people think or say about you, but you can tame what you say about yourself. We say hurtful things to ourselves that we would never say to another person. For example, have you ever said to yourself:
“I’m no good.”
“Why would anyone want me?”
“I’m a failure.”
“I’m so stupid.”
“I’ll never be able to stop that.”
“I’m an idiot.”
Way back in the 1990s, Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D. gave these thoughts a name. He called them “ANTs.” Yes, he called them ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. What’s important to remember is that these thoughts are real, and they have a direct impact on how you feel and how you behave.
ANTs are all too common. Brain scientists tell us that most of our thoughts are negative, which they maintain is perfectly normal. These thoughts pop up to keep us on the alert and safe. But ANTs can also become a habit. There is an adage in the neuroscience community that goes like this: Neurons that fire together wire together. In other words, the more you have a reoccurring thought pattern the more likely it is that you will continue to have that thought pattern. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to break a bad habit.
Another challenge that surfaces with your negative thoughts is the issue of truth. Just because you are having a thought does not mean it’s true. It could even be harmful. Most of us would question someone else telling us we are stupid. We would even get angry at someone for calling us an idiot. But when we say it to ourselves, we just accept it. We don’t question it. You need to question it. Question your self-talk.
One way to do this is to recognize your thoughts when they are negative and talk back to them. Dallas Willard has written, in his book “Hearing God” that we should stop listening to ourselves and begin talking to ourselves. This advice may seem strange in a book about hearing from God, but I promise you that it is sound. If you can learn how to not believe every stinking thought that you have in your head, you will go a long way into moving toward mental, physical and spiritual health.
Our problem has been that these thoughts pop us automatically, seemingly out of the blue and then they pile up. If it were just one or two a day, it would not be so bad, but they accumulate and take over our lives to a greater or lesser degree. At any rate, they consume a lot of energy and cause us to miss some great opportunities.
Another way to combat these thoughts is to write down the thought and then write down what is true that counters the thought. I’m a fan of journaling. For me, writing stuff down has a way of freeing my mind.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you have a negative thought or an ANT:
Is it true?
How can I know that this is really true?
How do I react because of believing that thought?
Here’s the gut check question:
How would I feel if I didn’t have that thought or ever have it again?
These questions will put some objectivity to your self-talk.
I don’t want to get deep into neurobiology, after all, I’m no neuroscientist. But I have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express! With that said, I have read and heard over and over from qualified people in this field as to how our ANTs affect our health.
Whenever you have a negative thought, such as anger, sadness or depression, your body releases chemicals into the limbic system (that part of the brain [stem] that control your autonomic nervous system) that make you feel bad, both emotionally and physically. It fires you up and puts you on alert. The limbic system gives us the emotional fuel that increases your heart rate among other things.
When you have a positive thought, such as happiness, joy or hope, your body releases chemicals into the same system, but these are different and make your emotions and body feel good. So, your body reacts to every thought that you have in some way and to some degree.
This why thoughts are so powerful. They can make you laugh and sing or cause you to have a headache and double over with pain in your gut.
I believe it is possible for us to train our thoughts to be positive and filled with hope. If we can change our thoughts, we can change the way we feel. When we change the way we feel, it will change the way we treat ourselves and others. It will change our lives.
You may be wondering if this is biblical. Well, it is. David, the great king of Israel often asked himself why he was thinking or feeling a certain way. He would then make adjustment in his thoughts and bring them back to the truth of Scripture.
“Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 43:5, CSB)
“My soul, bless the Lord, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. My soul, bless the Lord, and do not forget all his benefits.” (Psalm 103:1–2, CSB)
This is part of what the Apostle Paul was referring to when he said to renew your mind. He wrote, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2, CSB)
We are to think God’s thoughts. Of course, you cannot think God’s thoughts if you don’t know God’s thoughts. This is where Scripture reading, meditating, and memorizing come in. I can say with certainty that you are not thinking God’s thoughts if you are berating and condemning yourself. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1, CSB). Not even a little condemning. Zip, zero, nada, none.
So, take notice of your self-talk and if it’s not in line with God’s talk about you, rebuke it and tame it in the powerful name of Jesus.