Why is it that many of us default to spending an inordinate amount of our time worrying?
Do you find yourself, as I do more often than not, merely seconds into your waking day each morning, thinking instantly about those things past, present or future which make you feel anxious?
On a typical work day (when, I should add, my kids are not staying at my house, in which case my day would inevitably start with berating them for jumping on me at 5:30am, and then pointing out, yet again, that the darkness outside signals “night-time” before going to even greater lengths to stress upon them that “everybody” else in Saigon is still asleep) the first few blinks of the eyes all too often stimulate for me a certain set of thoughts.
It goes a little like this…
Identify where you are and confirm it is you, and that you have in fact stopped dreaming about some bizarre (but strangely meaningful) combination of people, places and emotions.
Check the time.
Curse the fact that you drank your bedside glass of water at 3am when, as you now recall, you woke up, parched, and were in need of the bathroom.
Roll over and enjoy the feeling of your pillow more than you have ever enjoyed it (this is mainly because subconsciously you know you have maybe two more minutes at best to lie there before needing to get up and go to work).
At this stage, if your dream was particularly meaningful, you might close your eyes and try and beam yourself back into the cosy fug of being asleep and dreaming.
Resigned then to the fact that it is Monday, and that you are awake, your mental roller-deck of “thoughts” starts up and, BOOM, you are off running: work; relationships; money; family; health; what to eat for breakfast? – I find myself flicking between a host of familiar topics as I rub the sleep from my eyes, whilst simultaneously determining to what extent each topic might require pontificating, decision, or dismissal…
Turns out, there’s a neat acronym that describes anxious thoughts: ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). We all get ANTs, so the science would suggest. ANTs do not discriminate across gender or culture or affluence. A rich man may awake in his 12-bedroomed house, consumed by a genuine set of ANTs related to his stocks and shares. The homeless man’s waking considerations and ANTs, conversely, perhaps more attuned to daily survival. ANTs reside within us all.
I would suggest that ANTs are more prominent in adults rather than youngsters and, as a 38 year old, I am most obviously prone to early morning ANTs to a greater extent than that of my children. Florence’s very first thought each day as a 5 year old is to establish from me whether it is “a school day or a play day?” For Martha, aged 2, her every fibre, action and thought when she finds herself awake is how to best beat me into submission until I surrender my iPad to her, in order that she can watch nursery rhymes on Youtube.
Let’s call these inverted ANTs experienced by my kids, AFTs (Automatic Fun Thoughts).
Whilst kids can have ANTs, we adults are certainly capable of having AFTs, but it is my charge to you, the reader, that the older we get the more our ANTs have a crafty way of muscling in on our AFTs. You follow me?
Whatever I typically ‘determine’ to do with my own daily jumble of morning ANTs, putting the kettle on is, 99% of the time, the first action I commit to each morning to combat the competing ANTs, and indeed making tea is the only thing I am usually able to focus on for the inaugural minute of the day, once I’ve taken that plunge of first sitting, then standing up, before hobbling to the kitchen.
Just what specific antidote you might take to deal with your ANTs is not something which can be prescribed. There is a tried and tested list of things which can help: intoxication; gratification; meditation; interaction…indulging in any form of distraction; or, heaven above, actually action-ing something which resolves a particular ANT.
All of these things can fend off ANTs, and everyone needs to find a formula that works for them (and do not, by the way, now add to your list of ANTs a concern that you don’t know what that formula is, because you do know, deep down.)
And I would suggest a personal ownership to dealing with your ANTs because it seems to me that an ANT “shared” is not always an ANT “halved” (as the saying for problems goes.) There is often a mechanical realm to a problem that can be “worked out”. Problems can be ‘scientific’, requiring practical application of sense and reflection. ANTs, for me at least, are chemical. They don’t always make sense to your head or to your heart. In which case, your own ability to tackle them needs to adapt accordingly.
As a general enough rule, I think we tend to opt for the short term consumptive, and more gratifying, options that are presented to us as our days unfold. And you need to watch out for such things…we know we should read that report on the commuter train, but the lure of the internet and scrolling through a round of up last night’s football matches, or a quick game of Candy Crush, can often be more appealing…”that pan au chocolat looks nice”, we think to ourselves, as we disembark the carriage and meander down the platform glued to our treasured iGadget (themselves representing convenient portals to that 2.0 world where ANTs can’t find us) “I’ll have a salad for lunch to make amends later, and I think an extra shot of espresso will help me read that report…”
Such instant “fixes” provide temporary smoke screens which can disorientate our ANTs, themselves never far away, but I think we need to deploy tactics to manage our ANTs that are less consumptive and instant, and more about how we are as a person. And this can be where FUN comes in.
Kids eat, drink and breathe FUN. It is a mantra for them, an innocent and far reaching state of being that involves seeking out, having, and then talking about FUN stuff. All the time.
I think there is a lot to be said for adults to take a leaf out of the intuitive life handbook of FUN to which most under 10’s adhere. This doesn’t mean affixing a permanent goofy grin on your face whilst sat on the train, nor does it involve trying to make FUN things happen 24/7, as this will inevitably drive both you mad, and your friends away.
It is more about the perspective through which you see the world, and your actions and feelings within it. Don’t ignore the ANTs, but recognise them for what they are, and at the same time, create more space for those AFTs, and those FUN moments.
It is my humble opinion that most people will respond positively to your AFTs because, deep down, chemically and intuitively AFTs have a resonance the world over. And one that we should embrace.
And if embrace them you do, as these canny Swedish FUN thinkers proved, with their “Fun Theory” tests, you might just be onto something…