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Controlling mental monsters


‘It’s too difficult’. ‘I’m not smart enough’. ‘Everybody hates me’. ‘I’m so lazy’. ‘There’s no point’.

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? Psychologists call these types of thoughts automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). Nearly everyone will experience them and they’ll generally be fairly harmless. However, when ANTs overrun an individual’s thoughts it can be extremely dangerous to their mental wellbeing.

With the high pressure environment of law school, students can be especially susceptible to ANT invasions. I’ve seen students transform from having a confident and joyful demeanour to being persistently pessimistic and discouraged. This vicious negative transformation occurs because of the do, think, feel cycle. When you have negative thoughts about yourself, this causes you to feel disappointed and upset, which causes negative behaviour and, in turn, more negative thoughts.

In a law student’s life there are many catalysts for negative thoughts, such as prolonged stress, disappointing results, financial hardship, relationship problems, and/or clerkship and job rejections. Negative thoughts related to one or more of these issues could make a student feel sad and worthless. This could decrease their motivation, which could exacerbate the original issue or create a new issue. The student is left in a vicious downwards spiral of persistent doubt.

So how do we prevent these mental monsters from dragging us down? The first step is trying to identify when you are having an ANT and then assessing the accuracy of the thought. An example of assessing an ANT would be if you were to get a bad mark on an assignment and have the thought ‘I’m not smart enough to get a good mark, there is no point in trying’. Look at the defects in this thought. How much do you actually believe it? If a friend said this to you would you agree with them or would you challenge them?

The second step is developing capability-affirming thoughts (CATs). These are often called affirmations or positive-talk. They are compassionate and encouraging thoughts that our inner-coach tells us. Examples of CATs include: ‘You can do this’, ‘You will do better next time’, ‘Keep on going’ and ‘well done’. Studies have proven that engaging in CATs increases your positive behaviour and successfulness. To help you remember to tell yourself CATs it can be useful to write them where you can see them several times a day.

So, next time you are berating yourself for being lazy and watching television instead of studying, try to stop and assess if the insult is fact or fiction. Then remember that it is more beneficial for your motivation if the ANT was replaced with a CAT such as ‘great, you’re nice and relaxed you can go smash that Cons assignment now!’.

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