How We Can End the Epidemic of Negative Thinking: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Amen
Daniel Amen, MD, is a double board-certified psychiatrist, international speaker, and the founder of Amen Clinics. Called “the most popular psychiatrist in America,” Dr. Amen has written, produced, and hosted 12 shows about the brain on public television and is the author of over 30 books, including #1 New York Times best seller Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.
1440: Much of the advice you give—to eat well, get good sleep, move your body, be a good community member—was how most people lived just two or three generations back. What has happened in recent decades to plummet us to such an unhealthy state in our culture?
Daniel Amen: Tana and I wrote about this in our book The Brain Warrior’s Way.
Today you’re literally in a war for the health of your brain.
This was never true before. But now, everywhere you go, someone is trying to shove toxic, addictive food down your throat—food that will kill you early.
There is also nearly nonstop bombardment from gadgets that steal your attention and cause the release of dopamine in your brain, leaving you needing more and more excitement in order to feel anything at all. Add in the chronic stress that people feel from commuting, overworking, and expecting relationships to be perfect without having to do much work for it, and we have a society that’s sick.
Forty percent of us are obese, and I’ve published two studies that show that as your weight goes up, the size and function of your brain goes down. Twenty percent of teenage girls are depressed. That’s one in five teenage girls. That absolutely was not true 50 years ago.
1440: What is causing such high levels of anxiety among teenagers?
Daniel Amen: Part of it is poor food, sleep, and exercise habits, but a big part of it is social media.
Anxiety often comes from comparing yourself negatively to someone else and thinking, “I should do this” or “I should be able to do that.” With the likes of Kylie Jenner or Kim Kardashian being the role model for many teenage girls, it’s sort of horrifying.
One of my patients, a teenage girl, took a video of herself without clothes on and it went viral in her high school. I asked my 14-year-old daughter how common this was and she said about 30 percent of kids go through that. That’s not an official number, but this didn’t even happen 20 years ago. The level of negative thinking among all my patients—kids and adults—is very high and causes tremendous anxiety.
1440: How can kids, or anyone, take back their mind from obsessive negative thinking?
Daniel Amen: The Buddha wrote about this tendency 2500 years ago. We live with a monkey mind. It swings from branch to branch inside our head, often without a lot of purpose.
We don’t know how to discipline our minds. And because, as a species, we evolved with a negativity bias to help us spot threats in the environment, our minds naturally go to what’s wrong rather than what’s right.
Many years ago I had a really hard day at work. I saw two people whose marriage was in crisis, two teenagers who had run away from home, and four suicidal patients. I went home very stressed and discovered an ant infestation in my kitchen. As a medical student I was always coming up with mnemonics or acronyms for things I was trying to remember. As I was cleaning up what seemed to me thousands of ants, I thought, “ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. My patients are infested with ANTs!”
The next day I brought a can of ant spray into the office, put it on my coffee table, and said to my patients, “We need to talk about the ANTs in your head. You’re infested and we need to get rid of them.” And they got it! Eventually I got rid of the spray and started using an ant and an anteater puppet. Kids love it. I even have a book called Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions that identifies the different kinds of ANTs and walks you through how to combat them.
1440: So how do we fight negative thoughts?
Whenever you feel sad, mad, nervous, or out of control, the trick is to look at what you’re thinking and ask yourself, “Is it true?”
Start talking back to the thought. Examine it. Question it. Are you 100% sure that the thought is true? Probably not. Questioning your thoughts is a good way to make sure you don’t believe every stupid thing that you think!
1440: What if a thought feels really true? What if it seems really obvious that the guy doesn’t like me because when I asked him to go to the school dance (or to grab a drink if I’m an adult), he said no? How do you work with that?
Daniel Amen: The goal here isn’t positive thinking. I’m not a fan of that.
What I am a fan of is accurate thinking.
What does it really mean that he didn’t say yes? Maybe it means he’s interested in someone else. You don’t know for sure, but if it’s true, you would want to know that so you can move on and open your heart up for someone else. But if the thought is “He said no, so I’m unworthy,” that’s different. I had a girl this week who wrote on her hand, “I’m a slut. I’m unworthy.” We questioned the thought and she realized it wasn’t true. But if she didn’t question it, and she thought it over and over again, she would come to believe it. You can see how that could end up devastating her life.
1440: So you’re not a fan of positive thinking, but is there room for other kinds of intentional thinking, like a gratitude practice or sending loving thoughts to yourself?
Daniel Amen: Absolutely. I’m a huge fan because that’s not false. It’s not phony. I’m a fan of gratitude and an even bigger fan of appreciation. Gratitude is what I feel good about and what I’m grateful for. Appreciation is a bridge where you take gratitude and you reach out and tell someone else that you appreciate them. It’s like gratitude squared. Both practices are great for the brain.