Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are irrational and self-defeating thoughts that result from our fears or anxiety about certain situations.
Automatic thoughts take the form of negative self-talk and can appear without us even realising it as an immediate response to an everyday event.
For example, let’s say that your teacher says that you’re going to have a test at the end of the week and your automatic thought is,
‘Well, I’m going to fail that.’
This is your belief right now in the moment but it’s not necessarily the truth. It’s important to recognise when you have an automatic negative thought so that you can challenge it and change it.
When left unchallenged, ANTs can affect our mood and behaviour and become self-fulfilling prophecies, ie. we believe so strongly that they’ll come true that we create the environment for them to happen in real life.
Take note of the ANTs
When you first hear about the test, here are some of the automatic negative thoughts you might be thinking:
I’m going to fail this test.
This is a disaster.
My parents are going to be mad.
Why am I so stupid?
Nobody else seems to find this subject hard. What’s wrong with me?
I hate school, I can’t wait to leave.
Instead of shoving them to one side and forcing yourself to try to think positively, remember that thoughts come and go and that they don’t always represent the truth.
You don’t have to accept the negative thoughts, you can challenge them.
Challenge the ANTs
- State the facts
In the case of the first thought, take a second to think about it. Unless you know absolutely nothing about the topic, it is unlikely that you will fail this test. Acknowledge that you’ve probably exaggerated this claim!
What do you know about the subject already? Spoiler alert: you know more than you think. How many days do you have to do some extra study to improve your chances? Do you have a friend who has taken extra notes that you could borrow?
Is it really a disaster? No, at worst, it’s an inconvenience. It might mean you don’t get to watch as much TV or play on your phone as much for a couple of nights but, in the grand scheme of things, that’s no big deal.
- Question the credibility of the thought
What will happen if you don’t do well in this test? Will your parents really be mad? If it’s just a random class test that doesn’t effect your chances of getting into a certain class or college, probably not!
If you’re genuinely worried about their reaction, talk to them about the upcoming test and how you’re feeling a little apprehensive about it. Chances are, they will simply encourage you to do your best and maybe to study more regularly so you don’t feel like this in the future!
Once you take a step back and look at the situation from a calmer perspective, you’ll see that there are things you can do.
Reframe the ANTs
- Replace the negative thought with a kinder option
It’s not realistic to simply say that you should ignore all ANTs and immediately think positively. Overcoming a learned behaviour takes time and practice.
Instead, start replacing those automatic thoughts with kinder thoughts that account for more than the immediate situation. For example:
I’ll do my best in this test and that’s all I can do.
Whatever the outcome of this test, I’ll use it as a tool to build better study habits for myself.
I am a smart, capable and talented person. How I do in this test doesn’t define my intelligence or skills.
- Talk to someone
There will be some days when no amount of self-kindness can stop the ANTs swarming through your mind and when that happens, it’s important to know that you’re not alone.
So many people have felt that way in the past and the number one thing to remember is that – this too shall pass.
You won’t feel this way always so give yourself a break. Acknowledge how you feel and know that it’s okay to feel sad or upset or anxious about something.
Talking to someone about how you’re feeling will help you challenge those ANTs because two heads are better than one when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
The more you talk about them, the smaller and more insignificant they’ll get as you realise that you don’t have to deal with them alone.
Childline is always here for you when you need to talk. You can get in touch to discuss anything that’s on your mind – big or small – through our Live Message button on childline.ie. You can call 1800 66 66 66 to speak to someone on the phone.