Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS) - Teen Girls & Anxiety/Depression

I'm going to fail the test

I'll never get into that college

She doesn't like me

I can't do it

It's too hard

How do you feel after hearing these? Down, stressed, sad, anxious?  These are just a few examples of automatic negative thoughts or ANTS, responses that girls have to common life situations.  Girls who struggle with anxiety and depression suffer from ANTS.

ANTS are difficult because they are automatic.  The big problem is that if they are not addressed they can become more ingrained and create longer term mental health problems. 

Often these responses are rooted in negative assumptions:

  • assumes people are talking negatively about her
  • assumes the worst case
  • assumes failure
  • assumes she knows what others are thinking
  • assumes she isn't capable

For example a teen girls walks into a room and people turn around.  an ANT response would be "I look ugly and people are staring" or "something must be wrong with me".  In reality people in the room could be thinking this OR more likely - they turned because there was noise OR it's natural for people to notice if someone enters a room OR they really like my outfit OR no one is really paying attention.  These are several other possible options, none of which are negative.

Closely related to ANTS are Interpretations.  Interpretations are how we filter life experiences.  We interpret our lives and how others interact with us based on the lens we are looking through.  If that lens is negative, then we will make a lot of negative interpretations.

When these interpretations are negative and automatic... anxiety and depression are the often the result. 

Think about it... If I am walking through life making a lot of negative assumptions, my emotions will follow and I will experience more anger, sadness, anxiety, hurt, jealousy, etc...  If I can learn to view life more positively or at least neutralize the negative thought with a positive one, then I will more likely feel happiness, contentment, joy, excitement, etc... 

That doesn't mean life won't have negative experiences.  Life is full of BOTH positive and negative scenarios.  But people who continuously assess the negative and discount the positive will experience more distress.  We want to teach her while her brain is ripe to notice both and how to alleviate some distress by doing so.

So what can you do to help her?

First, she has to know about ANTS.  Do some basic explaining.  I have a great video by Dr. Daniel Amen posted on my Youtube channel that you could show her. It's explains ANTS and gives a great way to combat the thoughts.

I help girls notice when they are struggling with ANTS.  If I hear it, I gently and kindly point it out.  Then we come up with alternative ideas or responses.  Here are 4 great questions she can ask herself.  You can do it with her.

  • Is it true?
  • Can I absolutely know it's true? (What is the evidence that it's true?)
  • How do I feel when I believe the thought?
  • How would I feel if I didn't have the thought?

Finally, change the thought to it's opposite.  For example if she says she "can't", change it to "can".  Change "they don't like me" to "they do like me". 

Remember if there is no actual evidence of the thought then it's not true.  Even if there is perceived evidence of it to be true, it must be tested to find out if it's really true.  If she is walking around thinking people don't like her but there is no evidence to this then she needs to work on believing that people DO like her and ultimately she will feel better.  One negative experience with a person does not provide sufficient evidence that ALL people do not like me (or even that person doesn't like her).

It's complicated for sure and doesn't come so easy.  Changing the way we think to a more realistic view of like is very hard.  The teen years are truly the best time to do it though.  The brain can absorb it more easily then if she waits until she is much older to try and change.

Would love to know any common ANTS you hear from her.