Our human brains do a lot of thinking. To the tune of about 70,000 thoughts per day. I did the math when I heard this. That’s over 2000 thoughts per hour. Over 48 per minute. Okay, another study says it’s more like 6200 per day – but it’s still a lot!
Most of these are passing thoughts, as our brains process a whole lot of what’s happening in the world around us, barely noticed, if at all. But what’s really interesting is that at least according to what researchers have found – a lot of these thoughts – including those that reach our consciousness – are what can be classified as negative. As in – watch out for this, avoid that, danger there.. Our brains are scanning our environment constantly for danger – and the more difficulties you’ve actually had in your life, particularly trauma, the more likely your brain is to be particularly on alert.
This phenomenon is something I hope you’ll hang out with me as I riff about it with you today, it’s a continuation of the Perfectionism theme – and something I alluded to in that recent podcast.
I also think it’s some cool stuff about how our brains work, relates to a lot of us, and, as I’ve personally experienced it’s something we can learn to work with to our advantage – and keep from becoming a disadvantage as it’s so often apt to. We can also pass this information forward to others in our lives, and you can even share it with your kids if you happen to have any of those.
Okay, so here goes – this is how it went down for me about 10 years ago when I first started paying attention to this phenomenon in my own life – and in my own head!
I was on the phone with a friend – who also happened to be a hypnobirthing teacher. I was sharing some self-doubt about a new endeavor I was wanting to launch, and trusted her enough to share my inner negative self-talk out loud.
It was a big gutsy project – and I was in the weeds as in it’s going to be expensive to launch and I’m terrified of financial risk, I didn’t know if people are going to want this service from me, I don’t know if I know enough to do this….down to – seriously – don’t laugh – I don’t fundamentally have the genetic wiring to have what it takes. As if there is such a thing.
Not only that, my partner had his own survival mode stuff kicking in. His parents went belly up bankrupt when he was in college – leaving him to fend for himself on every level. So his scarcity stuff around taking a risk went into hyperdrive and he was adding to my doubts, all the noise drowning out this strong calling to create and launch this project.
So there I was. An automatic negative self-talk pity party. Out loud. Can you relate? Maybe not to it being out loud – but the doubting self-talk?
My friend said, barely holding back her chuckling as the Yale trained MD, author, and business woman on the other end of the phone with her was actually believing all the doubt stories, in her usual matter of fact but still loving way, “Girl, you need a hypnobirthing class!”
I laughed at the visual that this conjured. Me, then in my upper mid 40s, 4 grown kids and 2 grandkids, being pregnant, sitting on the floor, giant belly, supported by pillows, breathing in and out. Not happening!
But then I saw it – and exactly what she meant – hypnobirthing as the metaphor I needed for shifting my mindset in the face of birthing something new – in the face of fear, of challenge, of a new and scary transition, filled with self-doubt about whether I could do it…
Hypnobirthing is about making mindset shifts. We reframe internalized notions we have about birth as unbearably painful, dangerous, and impossible to-do, into a way of looking at ourselves in relationship to birth – as skilled, capable, and able to ride the intensity of the waves (i.e., contractions) to the other shore. Most importantly, it’s about learning to recognize our inner fear dialogues, replacing them thoughts with messages of power and strength and ability. It helps women to build a thought vocabulary of capability and efficacy –and backs it up with supportive breathwork, movement, and other helpful tools.
As the lights went on in my brain, my gal-pal went on to remind me that as a midwife and a physician I would never say the discouraging, doubt-filled things to a pregnant or laboring mama – or anyone else – that I was saying to myself. I’d be telling a mama in labor that she’s got the power and to stay centered in that.
So why was I filling my own head with thoughts of inadequacy and incapability? Where were these thought patterns coming from in spite of an obviously efficacious life? It was like I suddenly heard the background music I hadn’t really noticed before – pretty sure this new painful thinking had something to do with the internalized bullying that sometimes not so tacitly comes hand-in-hand with medical training.
It was time for a reframe – and that took me into a deep dive into the neurobiology of ANTs. Because I love neurobiology (yes, total geek here), and I wanted to find a new way of thinking and being that wasn’t holding me back with anticipatory anxiety.
Do You Have ANTs in Your Brain?
Have you ever experienced anything like the following?
- You’re washing the dishes, reach to put away a glass, and it slips from your hands. Somehow you hear your brain saying, “I’m always so clumsy” or “Why do I break everything?”
- Or you have tension in a romantic, business, or friendship relationship and you wonder, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I always screwing up friendships.” or you assume “Well, I guess this friendship is just over.”
- Or you meet someone new and assume, from their posture or facial expressions, that they just don’t like you very much – and worse – that it’s some inherent fault of your own – or that you did something off-putting?
- Or maybe you want to take a chance on a new job or career move and you think, “I’d never get an offer or accepted, I’m just not good enough” or “I’d never get picked for something like that – my family just doesn’t have those genes.”
- Or perhaps you engage in a business or personal relationship that just doesn’t work out, perhaps even costing you time, money, or a major emotional investment, and even if the person totally ripped you off in one way or another, your first thoughts are “I’m such an idiot,” Or “I’m never going to find the right babysitter, assistant, life partner.”
Where do these kinds of thoughts come from? And why do we tend to have them? Fortunately, neurobiologists, psychologists and social scientists have given this a thought, too, and have some answers for us.
On the most primitive biological level, our tendency to pay more attention to what could go wrong, over what could go right, is an evolutionary protective mechanism.
Think of it this way – you’re 11 years old and you’re walking home from school with your best friend. And you happen to live in Bengal, India. Where yes, they still have Bengal tigers. That eat people. So you’re walking along, laughing and bantering when you and your friend see the bushes ahead of you rustling and you notice stripes. Your heart races, you become alert, your body freezes you in place and you grab your friend’s arm and urge him to slowly and quietly back away with you, because you instinctively see the worst possibility. Tiger. Hungry tiger. Your friend, always the happy jokester who sees everything on the positive side, says, “Oh, don’t be silly, that’s just the breeze and sunlight on those striped leaves. Or wait – it’s Devi’s big striped dog and – and your friend whistles and claps for the pooch to come play while you continue to slowly back away….
In fact, if it was a tiger, who do you think is more likely to survive that scenario and pass on the serious fear of tigers to their children, both directly, but also possibly epigenetically? Exactly!
That’s why, In our earliest human history, paying attention to risks and threats was literally a matter of survival, and those more attuned to danger – those who tended to see the worst – were not only more likely to survive, but that meant they were also more likely to pass down the very survival genes that helped them do so – those that veer toward negative thinking.
What is Negativity Bias?
Our HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) Axis, which I’ve talked about at length in other episodes, and deep dive into in my books The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution and Hormone Intelligence, is part of this important response system – translating our perceptions of danger into the physiologic responses that keep us safe – causing us to fight, flee, or in the case of the tiger, freeze.
The tendency toward seeing what’s wrong with a scenario, or what could go wrong has a name: it’s known as negativity bias. Brain imaging studies demonstrate that we actually get much bigger ‘neural hits’ from being exposed to negative stimuli in testing situations, meaning our brains – and in turn our biological responses – are more activated and imprinted by things that threaten us than by what most of us would consider positive stimuli. Our brains are more powerfully influenced by bad news and negative experiences.
Another classic example of negativity bias is this: Which do you think you’ll remember more vividly: the snake or the beautiful scenery along the way? Most people will remember the snake, because negative experience, which most people consider seeing a snake to be, tends to imprint on and affect us far more strongly than positive ones. And having had that experience on a hike in Los Leones Canyon in LA a few years ago, I can tell you – I definitely remember that 5-foot rattlesnake that crossed my path just 3 feet ahead of me and my daughter – while the rest of that hike is definitely a bit more of a blur! I’ll never forget that there are big rattlesnakes in ‘them ‘thar hills’. And that’s a useful bit of information – but is it one that should make me anxious about ever walking there again?
Negativity bias is so hardwired into our brains and biology that it appears to come on line in our brains when we’re barely out of the womb. Studies of infants’ brains show that by as early as 3 months old, babies being to show signs of negativity bias in social interactions, and most parents notice that by around 8 months old, babies have a very strong sense of ‘stranger’ awareness – crying sometimes vociferously when approached by or handed over to someone who isn’t mom.
Fast forward out of primitive times, and into our adult lives when as adults our frontal lobes are fully formed – the ability to imagine risks, problems, and possible ‘bad outcomes’ allows us to anticipate and prevent bad choices and outcomes we’d all prefer to avoid – taking the wrong job, making the wrong financial decision, picking the wrong mate.
The ability to anticipate danger is an important quality one would also want one’s doctor, accountant, or car manufacturer to be amply endowed with. An excellent diagnostician, for example, can hold both hope and see the worst possibilities simultaneously! An excellent accountant will help you to both spend and save your money wisely, while keeping an eye out for alarming trends in the market. And so on. The ability to be self-critical, to entertain negative thoughts, to see the worst when we need to, keeps us safe, but also allows us to learn from our mistakes so we don’t repeat.
Some ‘negative thinking’ if we want to call it that – because really, it’s the ability to have imaginative anticipatory problem solving – is a good and important and normal thing. Our brains are hardwired to do it. Yes, I will definitely wear hiking books on that trail with rattlesnakes and I will not stick my hands under fallen logs.
Unfortunately, and here’s where the problem lies – on the one hand, we no longer face the types of big threats our ancestors faced (lions and tigers and bears) so we’ve evolutionarily outgrown the need to constantly scan our environment for danger – we don’t need our negativity bias to be quite so front and center. On the other hand, we live in a world that’s frequently activating our stress response – our HPA Axis – so even when we don’t need to lean so heavily toward a negativity bias – it’s being chronically stimulated.
Add to that if you’ve experienced early childhood trauma, or even adult trauma – and that instinct to see the world through gray-colored lenses can become your default. We get stuck in survival mode thought patterns, seeing so much of life through the lens of what could go wrong – rather than what could – and so often does – go right.
That’s where the next phenomenon comes in – automatic negative thoughts or ANTs. This is a term coined in 2001 by Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman for words or sentences that seem to come out of nowhere, almost as if they’re pre-programmed into our minds, and that often seem scolding, doubting, negative, fearful, or like a warning. They may stand alone, or be followed by a whole avalanche of more negative self-talk or worst case scenario thinking. As in, If I go for a walk on that trail I mentioned and all I can now think of – or that keeps popping into my head – is danger-danger-danger-snake. Accompanied by anxiety. Even though the chance of there being an actual dangerous snake encounter there is close to zero. Automatic Negative Thoughts, however, on a biological level, can become what we become primed to remember, be on the lookout for, and be limited by.
So why am I talking about all of this on a podcast about women’s health?
Well, for one, I’ve experienced all this and working with a lot of women – tells me I’m not the only one. And because I’m out here rooting – like fist pumps in the air rooting – for you to live your best life, and research shows us that that negativity bias and its accompanying automatic negative thoughts can adversely impact how we think and feel – about ourselves, our abilities and our lives, and can dramatically influence the choices we make for and the chances we take on ourselves.
Further, so many women are struggling with chronic anxiety, depression, sleep problems driven not just by hormones, but by worries and stresses, and so, so many feel stuck – unable to take chances on living their best lives – because they’re besieged by thoughts that act like the gatekeepers on taking chances, on trusting that the best can actually happen for them. So they remain in jobs, relationships, housing situations, working with doctors that aren’t working for them, etc. – not simply because they have to – but because they’re limited by self-doubt and the worst case scenario thinking.
Negativity bias and ANTs affect our relationships – particularly how we perceive and then therefore interact with others. It can lead us to assume the worst, feel mistrustful, misinterpret and internalize facial expressions that weren’t even meant for us, ruminate on something that was said, possibly even misinterpreting it as a negative, and thus can keep us defensive, socially anxious, or closed off.
And hey – none of us wants to be bathed in a sea of unhappy, unproductive, and unhelpful thoughts – which can be a profound impediment in our lives, holding us back from taking chances – even important and calculated risks – like trusting in a friendship or romantic relationship, taking that career leap like going back to grad school or applying for or accepting that new job, moving somewhere new, deciding to have a baby, writing that book, taking that art class or selling that painting. The list goes on and as I’m saying this, it’s very like that your secret risk or chance you’d like to take. If so, I encourage you to hit pause for one second – yes – you can do that – and write that inspiration down.
Now, another reason I’m talking about all of this is that being stuck in survival mode can take a real toll on our physical, biological health – and in my world, I take care of whole women’s health – not just bits and parts.
Mentally, it can lead to the anxiety, depression, and sleep problems I mentioned and treat so often in my practice. It can also lead, unintentionally, to ways of soothing those feelings – stress eating, drinking, binge TV watching, doom scrolling through socials – and so many other habits that affect your health. It can make you habitually pessimistic and that can even affect how you feel about your body and whether you can heal something you're struggling with.
And I’m talking about it because I care and know that being stuck in survival mode can also have a harmful impact on your physical well-being – as I’ve discussed elsewhere in blogs, pod episodes, and my books but in brief, can affect your immune system, hormones, gut health, and metabolism, and can actually lead to changes in your brain, including depleting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, that we need to keep our moods up, further reinforcing low or anxious moods, and it actually shrinking the size of the brain while increasing the size of the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, and possibly increasing our long-term risks of dementia while reducing neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to rewire and heal itself from trauma.
It’s also a really important clue that you are stuck in survival mode so rather than beating yourself up – it’s time to activate some radical self-compassion. If you notice yourself stuck in a loop of perseverative thoughts, it’s time to dial into what’s going on: Are you tired, overworked, overwhelmed? Is something going on in your life making you feel unsafe? Unsupported? Insecure (money, relationships, work, etc.)? Are you facing an illness in yourself or a family member? Are you an intense empath and the state of the world is chronically triggering you? Some or all of the above?
The amazing news is that it’s also something you can learn to recognize, shift, and tame so you can use it to your survival advantage, without having it hold you back or take you down mentally or physically.
Now to clarify, I’m not talking about feeling negative about what’s going on in the world around us. Systemic racism, lack of paid maternity leave, economic disparities, social injustices, the economy, and climate change – these are just a few examples of bigger issues that I hope would make us react – and not with a smile. This is also not about ‘toxic positivity.” Sadness, anger, frustration, and many other feelings that have negative connotations are not so black and white – they can be important indicators of when something is not right in our world – personally or more globally.
But thoughts are powerful. They shape our choices. They also shape our neurobiology– the inner circuitry that influences our weight, immunity, adrenal function, energy, food cravings, sleep, mood, mental focus, and numerous other influences on your health. How do they do this? Via the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that influence and even shape – or interfere with – our well-being.
Most of have ANTs in our brains – that is, automatic negative thoughts. And okay, an ANT here or there never ruined a picnic. Like my self-doubt about my book, an ANT or two can be flicked away (or carefully moved if you are averse to flicking away bugs) with a quick reminder and some empowering thoughts.
But in the extreme, think about putting your apple pie near an anthill! ANT colonies are actually a condition many of us are familiar with – anxiety! They are like a mental vice grip around our creativity. ANTs can keep us from taking leaps, trying new things, and can prevent us from enjoying and trusting in the goodness of the things that are happening in our lives. One of my common ANTs for example, is that after I’ve had a really good business year, I will chalk it off as a fluke, and think, “Well maybe next year won’t be as good and it will be back to the financial drawing board.” My ANTs like to tell me that I am never quite good enough and that success can be gone at any time.
Social media can really exacerbate ANTs by throwing in another common social bias called the halo effect, which is when we assign positive qualities to people who we perceive as attractive, wealthy, etc, and assume they are inherently better, smarter, or more trustworthy. So we compare ourselves and this feeds the ANTs even more.
On some deep evolutionary level, yes, a negative bias may be our default, but it doesn’t mean it dictates the path – it’s just meant to show up any pitfalls along the way so we can be aware of and avoid them. We can actually rewire our brains. In neuroscience there’s a term ‘what’s wired together fires together.”
We aggregate negative experiences and beliefs and stories so that when we see any shred of evidence of that pattern showing up in our lives, it reinforces the belief that the world is an unsafe place, triggers survival mode and all of its physiologic reactions, and reinforces behaviors that can be self-sabotaging and further reinforce unhelpful, unproductive beliefs. But it’s really true – if you never apply for the job, you’ll never get It – and yes, the person who seems luckier than you does get the job, because she applied.
How to Change Your Mind
There are 3 important keys I’ve identified to successfully reframing inhibiting, fear-based unhelpful thought patterns – or Replacing the ANTs with Automatic Useful New Thoughts (AUNTs). Yes, I just made that up. Because I needed an acronym. You could also say APTs – automatic positive thoughts – but that just sounds a little Pollyanna to me. So I’m sticking with AUNTS. Because useful thoughts seem more interesting to me than simply positive thoughts.
Here’s how I go about it and invite you to join me.
1. Recognize the ANTs
ANTS can be big or small – and are commonly such a baked in part of our monkey brain chatter that it’s so familiar that we don’t even notice it – sort of like the hum of your refrigerator – you don’t even notice it’s going until that electrical outage shows you how noisy that background really is – and how quiet things really can be!
So the first step is simply to slow down enough to hear your thoughts and drop into what’s going on in your body – rather than push away or ignore the messages – because you might actually be getting an important message that’s worth heeding – real stranger danger, an opportunity that is better to walk away from, a risk or chance that’s not worth taking. These are usual more purely visceral sensations – a knot in your stomach, your hairs pricking on your neck – that kind of thing. Listen and trust.
And learn to recognize your negativity bias and ANTs – both in terms of the negative thoughts you actually have, and the feelings that accompany them – the actual physical sensations – where are they in your body? What do you notice? For example, for me, it’s sort of a weight in my chest and the feeling that I’m breathing too shallowly.
It’s also worth paying attention to the actual voice your thoughts show up as. I know the voice of my husband in my head, my mother in my head, etc. – these are called introjects – other peoples’ words, projections, fears, and worries – that we’ve heard expressed either subconsciously when we were young (I can remember, as a young girl lying in bed one night, overhearing my mom telling a friend on the phone “ I don’t know how I’m going to put food on the table next week” and this still pops up when I’m considering anything that requires taking even a safe and calculated financial chance – like investing back in my business or home.
They might look like this:
- I’m too fat
- I’m not smart enough
- I could never do that
- I always fail
Be especially on the lookout for binary, black and white, all or nothing thinking – words like words like “always,” “never,” “can’t” and “every” are typically ANTs. Remember, they’re just thoughts. Not truths.
2. Create New Thought Habits
An ANT or two may always crawls in now and then – again, they’re here for our survival. We want to intentionally think though problems and even worst case scenarios. I do it as a doctor every day – it's called a differential diagnosis and it’s how we make sure we’re addressing the big scary things. It’s when the ANTs invade the picnic that we need to shake out the picnic blanket!
Here’s how to do that with your thoughts. Simply shift your frame – literally:
- Stand up and get a change of scenery, step outside, look out a window, take off your glasses if you’re wearing them, rub your hands to warm them and cup them over your eyes.
- Breathe in some fresh air – yes, even if you need to throw on a coat and brave the cold for a minute. Or open a window and breathe deeply if you can’t get outdoors.
- Move your body –stretch, kick off your keels and do 10 jumping jacks, do a balancing yoga pose, or a power post like Warrior 2.
- Put on some pump-you-up tunes and dance.
- Take a quick, brisk shower.
3. Change the Lens
Because our brains are wired to automatically remember the negative more strongly than the positive we have to work a little harder to learn to emphasize and remember the good experiences, count our successes and count our wins. When we learn to savor the positive aspects of our lives, rather than chew on the negative ones, we actually start to build our long-term sense of well-being. For all of us, this can disrupt the habit of being stuck in survival mode, and for those with a history of trauma or a high ACE Score, can begin to replace the evidence that life is all about survival with a new and more helpful story for living in the present and believing in your future.
Neuroplasticity shows us we can form new connections, rewrite old connections, and write new stories. For the default thoughts to not dictate our default beliefs and actions, we have to learn to quickly adjust – to refocus and recalibrate to the new story – the new belief- – and the more often we do this, the more automatic and easier it becomes.
One way to do this, make it a practice to intentionally finding 1-3 aspects of an experience or encounter that that were enjoyable, engaging, helpful, inspiring, and find something you learned – even if you didn’t, for example, get the job.
We can also reconsider the evidence from our lives. Your ANTs may be saying one thing, but the reality may be very different. So for example, one of my actual default ANTs is that I’m not wired for success. I know that’s probably a surprise to hear, but it’s one of my personal demons. So I sometimes actually have to intentionally interrupt those thoughts by looking at the very obvious evidence from my personal and professional life that clearly demonstrates that this is not true. Do you have a personal common automatic negative thought about yourself? Take a minute now to find 3 facts in your life that disprove that thought -and write them down – I’ll still be here – so come right back.
Here are a few AUNTs you can take from me – or make up your own.
- I am the author of my life.
- I’ve got this.
- I know what I need to do.
- I listen to my inner wisdom.
- When I throw a party people show up.
Also flip the script the next time you find yourself thinking
- “I’m never going to… (lose this weight, get that job),”
- “Everyone else is (thinner, smarter, richer, married, has kids).”
- “She always…(looks better, gets invited before me, has better luck).”
Sometimes I simply thank the ANT for protecting and helping me until now, and let it, with a nice deep breath and an exhale, that I it’s no longer needed – I’ve got it from here!
Whatever you choose from these options, the important thing to remember is that you can form new neural pathways through forming new thought habits. The more you do it, the stronger the new pathways become and the easier it is for your thoughts to begin to prefer those trails.
Birth is a powerful and relevant metaphor for being overwhelmed by new challenges, challenges that feel bigger than our capabilities, or those that bring us to our knees or that make us want to quit and run the other way.
But often, as with birth, these very situations are ones of breakthrough. Once through the hurdle we’re in a powerful new phase of our lives – be that motherhood, a new career path that we’ve always wanted but were afraid to take the leap, a relationship, or in my case, having the confidence to ride out my voices of inner doubt to create the next bestselling natural health book for women – one of my dreams.
You might not be planning to have a baby any time soon – or ever – so hypnobirthing might not be the thing for you! But you may be hoping to take some exciting personal or career risks that you’ve been putting off because of self-doubt that feel as big as having a baby. There may be mighty leaps and changes in your future but ANTs are keeping you from jumping in.
That's where hypnobirthing metaphor comes in… In getting out of the survival mode that both our evolutionary biology and our modern world seem to be pushing us into on the regular – we are making a conscious choice to trust in life more, to live our fullest biggest boldest expressions of ourselves.
As I mentioned, when it comes to hypnobirthing, we are literally using our breath, our thoughts, and our actions to build a vocabulary of capability and efficacy – as well as deeper trust in ourselves – and our actions – whether our breath, taking a walk, or holding our noses and braving the cold water to take a chance on our lives.
That project I was afraid to launch? It turns out to be one of the most fulfilling aspects of my work – teaching other practitioners to work in my model of women’s healthcare, so we can change women’s health together – and it’s become a central part of my livelihood, too. I took the plunge. None of my worst fears came true. In fact, the evidence supports exactly the opposite. And I learned to trust my instincts over my doubts even more strongly along the way.
The great Sufi poet Rumi said, “Whatever you are seeking is also seeking you.” I’m a firm believer in listening to those whispers, those inclinations, the passions that have become quiet because we’ve shushed them for so long but which really want to sing loud and clear from a mountain top that this is who you are.
I also want us to be more comfortable doing what is more common among both men and the very wealthy – taking chances and even being fine with failing now and then because it’s okay, we’ve got this, and we can learn and grow from it.
I’m in favor of a new way of thinking and being that frees us from the confines of anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and other physical symptoms that women are struggling with now due to chronic hyperactivation in the HPA Axis, these don’t simply have to be our default either. There is another way. And like I would tell any mama I’m supporting in labor, you’ve got this, and I’m here with you on the journey, reminding you of your strength along the way should you forget.