Worry is often triggered (set off) by a negative thought, idea or interpretation of a given situation. Often, these are automatic-they just pop into your head, and you instantly accept them as accurate without really examining them. Understanding that our minds may have gotten into the habit of generating negative thoughts that we may not even be aware of (but that cause anxiety) can be incredibly helpful. Therapists actually refer to these as ANTs (automatic negative thoughts).
For example, you might be worried about an upcoming test, and your ANTs unfold something like this: “I am worried that I may get a C on my chem final, which will look horrible on my report card. No decent college or university will accept me, and I will never be able to get into medical school”. Or “I said something stupid in that meeting. Now my boss will lose confidence in me, and I will get a bad review and lose my job.”
If you pay attention to your ANTs and begin noticing and identifying them, you can start to see how they might be causing you anxiety-and learn to disarm them.
If you would like to dive a littler deeper into identifying your ANTs, here is a short exercise to explore and work through on your own:
Pick a worry that has been bothering you. Be really specific. Now-answer the following questions:
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a therapist will typically work with an individual to identify some of the most common ANTs that show up for them, and then work collaboratively with the client to learn ways notice and challenge them.
Bacow, T. (2021) Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry. Spruce Books.
Written by Kerri Hill, Registered Psychologist with Wildflowers