Human beings are thinking creatures. They run in the back of our minds 24X7 giving shape to feelings, emotions and subsequent behaviors. The French philosopher Rene Descartes went as far as basing the proof of his whole existence on the premise of his ability to think. Cogito Ergo Sum, he says, ‘I think, therefore, I exist’.
Depending on the type of division, thoughts can be of many types. But in their most basic form, in many cases, they are either positive or negative. The ants being referred to in the title might not be literal ants but function in almost the same way. They creep into your mind without your knowledge, then slowly suck the sap out of your mind and make it weak. So what are these ants anyway? ANT is the abbreviated form of Automatic Negative Thoughts. As the terminology indicates, they are automatic because you might not even be aware of it when they are taking shape in your mind, they are quite strong too. Understand the metaphor now?
According to cognitive sciences, there is something known as ‘thinking distortions’ or ‘cognitive errors’ which we might unknowingly indulge in sometimes. And, as you might have guessed, these thinking distortions feed the ANTs and make the pattern of negative thinking much stronger. These thinking errors are seemingly having a fatal effect during the pandemic given the lockdown situation.
So let us begin at the beginning. Let us travel back in time to the period when the world was a much dangerous place to live. Our ancestors had no idea, in this hostile environment, about which animal would attack them from which corner, what kind of a natural calamity would occur the next moment and reduce their life to ashes. During those times of extreme uncertainty, they had no choice but to expect the worst and be prepared to tackle whatever might happen the next moment. And fast forward a few million years, here we are, endowed with all the gifts of evolution which sprung out of the notion of survival of the fittest. However, in the same package came a few shortcomings too, one of which is the negativity bias – the tendency to root to the negative aspects of any situation. While it is true that expecting the worst and being prepared for it pays off in many situations, it certainly is not as rewarding when it clouds your judgement. Many scientific experiments have time and again proved that having a negative mindset negatively impacts longevity. But there is a false notion equating staying realistic to negativity bias. Staying realistic is more of a pick-and-choose game. Some aspects of a situation might be negative which must be worked upon and an effort should be made to make them positive while some of it might be positive which must be retained and built upon. Nothing good comes out of having negative bias; it only cultivates more ANTs making one’s thinking pattern more negative till there is no hope left. It is mostly our thinking errors or cognitive distortions that contribute to the cultivation of these ANTs. Interestingly these thinking errors exist on either extreme of the thinking spectrum. Let us dig deeper into recognizing the thinking distortions or cognitive errors which cultivate these ANTs and stay alert during the pandemic.
- Filtering – Like negativity bias, this distortion makes one focus only on the negative aspect of any situation ignoring the other side of the face. For instance, looking at only the number of positive cases ignoring the recovery rate. On the other side of the spectrum exists the Ostrich Effect bias. The ostrich effect bias is a tendency to ignore dangerous or negative information by ignoring it or burying one’s head in the sand which makes one ignore the darker side of the moon and focus only on positive aspects of the situation. This often pulls one away from reality making them vulnerable to the dangers that would occur by not being careful enough.
- Catastrophizing – A catastrophe is usually defined as a disaster that results in heavy loss. It is often sudden in nature. In thinking error terms, catastrophizing means exaggerating the impact of a negative event, blowing things out of proportion. During this pandemic, this thought pattern is most commonly observed in those who are prone to health anxiety. While it is useful to get a covid test done when one is experiencing symptoms, it is only harmful to have an extremely negative mindset in case one is diagnosed. Keeping one’s health in regular check and staying with a happy, positive thought pattern would have a tremendous impact on an individual’s wellbeing and recovery. On the other end of the spectrum exists the thinking error of minimizing. Which makes one reduce the problem to a much simpler one than it usually is. Thought patterns lying aligned to the likes of ‘It is nothing but flu’ are proven dreadful during the times of uncertainty.
- Polarized thinking – This thinking error is somewhat similar to that of catastrophizing. Polarised thinking, also known as black or white thinking and All or none thinking is the thought pattern which makes one think on extremes. Those who are prone to this pattern often catastrophize a situation when it is not done perfectly. Forget to sanitise on one occasion and they fall into a spiral of catastrophic thoughts. The other extreme would be evading responsibility. Those who are prone to this thought pattern try to avoid responsibility on the premise that everything is out of control and there is nothing left to make things right. These individuals are usually reckless during times like these and are prone to further spread of the pandemic
There are a whole bunch of thinking errors which can be read about online. Explained above are the few which seem to be having a
How to tackle these thought errors?
Stress has two shades to it. One being the eustress. The other, distress.
It is very important to stay informed and on the watch during the pandemic which contributes to eustress actively protecting one from the dangers of uncertainty.
While staying anxious and under constant worry disrupts all the aspects of one’s life – be it social, academic, interpersonal or occupational. Which is why one must focus on being mindful of their thoughts.
Mindfulness – Mindfulness is a state of being aware of yourself, your thoughts and your surroundings. Being mindful is as important to your physical health as it is to your mental health. A few mindfulness exercises would be –
- Meditation – The good old meditation has become better to practice through years of instruction and revision. With the onset of technology one can install a simple app on the phone and practice guided meditation.
- Doing things that you love – it is also known as achieving a state of flow wherein one loses the track of time getting involved in their work – almost like meditation.
- Diaphragmatic breathing – Actively engaging the stomach, abdominal muscles and diaphragm when breathing.
- Positive Affirmations – The kind of talk you have with yourself has a huge impact on your mental state. Positive Self Affirmations like ‘I m alright’, ‘I can get through this’ etc.., prove to be very helpful
- Gratitude Journaling – Writing down in a book either at the end of your day or at the beginning, about all the things you feel thankful for, makes a big difference in your attitude towards life. There are many good free e books which can amplify your mindfulness experience. A simple google search about the same will prove to be tremendously helpful.