We all talk to ourselves, sometimes out loud, most often in our heads, and that’s perfectly natural. In fact, self-talk can help us to understand and organize our experiences, to plan, to learn, to think through problems to find a solution. But it’s important to pay attention to what it is that we are saying to ourselves. Not all of the conversations we have with ourselves are helpful. While positive self-talk can be supportive, increasing our confidence and positive mood, when self-talk is negative, it becomes unhelpful, and can have a very negative impact on how we feel, adding to our feelings of stress and, possibly, anxiety.
Pay attention to your inner voice. Are you kind and encouraging to yourself or are you critical and negative? Would you be comfortable saying to a friend what you say to yourself? A number of unhelpful thinking styles (also referred to as cognitive distortions) have been identified by psychiatrists and psychologists.
One common, unhelpful thinking style that has been identified is called “catastrophizing”. Catastrophizing refers to worrying about and imagining worst case outcomes of situations, and thinking that you won’t be able to cope. When we catastrophize, we take a small problem or relatively minor experience and imagine it as a major disaster, with terrible consequences.
For example, when we believe that we are behind on our studying, we may think “now I’ll need to stay up all night studying, and if I’m too tired to stay up all night, then I’ll fail the exam. If I fail the exam, they’re going to kick me out of school and my parents will disown me.” This is an example of catastrophizing – blowing a situation out of proportion. “If I have a headache, it’s probably a sign that I have a brain tumour”. “If a friend doesn’t return my text right away, she probably doesn’t like me anymore”. “If I made a mistake in a sports game, all my teammates will think I’m a terrible player.” “If my boyfriend breaks up with me, I won’t be able to stand it and I’ll have a nervous breakdown.”
Letting your thoughts spiral out of control like this is not helpful. Replacing these negative thoughts with more realistic, more reasonable thoughts is a much better way to live. So, how do you do that?
Often, we are unaware of our thoughts, but because they can have such a big effect on how we feel, it is important to start paying attention to what you are saying to yourself.
- Figure out “What am I thinking right now?, What am I saying to myself that is upsetting me? What bad thing do I expect to happen?”
- Remember that these are just your (often wrong) guesses about what will happen, not certainties. Negative thoughts, beliefs and expectations are not facts, and not necessarily accurate.
- Remember that there is a difference between possibility and probability. Yes, it is possible that your parents could disown you, or that your friend doesn’t like you, or that you are ill, but the probability of those things occurring is very, very slight, and therefore not worth wasting your time worrying about, or stressing yourself over. One effective strategy to manage your stress is to replace catastrophic thinking with realistic thinking.
- Evaluate the evidence for and against your thought. “How likely is it that this will happen?” Have I been in a situation like this before, and has this worst outcome occurred?” “What’s most likely to happen?” “Is there another way of looking at this, one that won’t leave me feeling as stressed?”
Use logical thinking. Try to find out facts, as opposed to relying on guesses and exaggerated beliefs.
- Look for more realistic ways to think about the outcome of the situation you’re in – something less extreme, something that is more likely to happen. Outcomes in life typically fall somewhere in the middle – not black or white, but shades of gray. Ask yourself “Is there another, more realistic thought that I can have that is a more likely outcome and won’t make me feel so upset.”
- For example, “I may not do as well as I would have liked on this exam, but I’ve never failed an exam before, so probably won’t this time. And even if I fail, students don’t get kicked out of school for failing one exam. My parents may not be happy with a low grade, but they would never disown me, they love me. No matter what happens, I’ll figure out a way to cope.”
- For example, “Headaches are a common symptom for lots of people. I’ll keep an eye on things and if they continue, I can always get it checked out by my doctor.”
- For example, “My friend may just be really busy. I can wait a few days to see if she gets back to me.”
- For example, “Anybody can have a bad game, and everybody does once in a while. My team has always been very supportive of each other, and I’m sure they understand that I just had an off day.”
- For example, “My boyfriend hasn’t said anything about breaking up. If it happened, I know I’d be sad, but I’ve been through sad times before and I’ve coped. I have lots of supportive friends that I can count on.”
Be on the lookout for self-talk that involves catastrophizing, and challenge this unhelpful self-talk when it occurs. Although it may take practice and time because catastrophizing thinking may have become a habit for you, you actually can choose to work on a more positive, more realistic and less stress-inducing way to talk to yourself.
Take care and be good to yourselves, Rhonda Gilby
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.