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Stress Management for Health Course

Stress and Internal Self Talk


". . . inner voices so punishing that they intensify our suffering."

(Dr Alice Domar PhD, Clinical Psychologist)

Contrary to popular opinion, talking to ourselves is not the first sign of madness.  We all have a silent, internal conversation with ourselves, in our mind, almost all of the time.  This is called Internal Self-Talk and is totally natural and healthy.  We have about 50,000 thoughts a day most of which are automatic.  Our internal self-talk will be a mixture of positive, negative and neutral thoughts, (healthy self-talk ratio is around 2 positive thoughts to every 1 negative thought); it is important to understand that this internal dialogue can influence our feelings and behaviours.  If our self-talk is mainly negative, harsh and unrealistic it can exacerbate any stress we are under.  In this silent self-talk we are often our own judge, jury and executioner with no right of appeal and no extenuating circumstances.  We can call ourselves useless, worthless, stupid, a failure, horrible and this is a form of psychologically beating ourselves up, it is literally a form of psychological torture.  Someone once wrote: "If we talked to our friends in the same way that we talk to ourselves we would not have any friends."

The problem with our self-talk is that we never question what we say to ourselves to check it's accuracy, we just listen to the negative statements day in, day out and like the drip, drip of water on stone, if we keep up excessive, negative internal self-talk saying negative things for long enough, we begin to believe it even if it's not correct.  We just accept it as being true when often it is not, or when it is true, we blow it out of proportion. 


Negative Self Talk

Two researchers in 1969 found that negative self-talk causes an increase in stress.  Our self-talk can be rigid, inflexible against ourselves, life, other people and this will increase our stress.  If we think we are a failure or useless we just tend to accept it.  We tend to think our thoughts are just thoughts, but they are not and have been shown to affect our brain chemistry.  That is why research has found that optimists, who have a positive self-talk and belief in themselves, have better physical and psychological health than those of us that tend to be pessimistic with a negative self-talk. 

Very often the quality of our self-talk has been influenced by our parents, friends, peers, media, school, etc., when we were younger.  We can get into a loop especially with chronic stress in which the self-talk is mainly hypercritical of ourselves.  It can influence our self-esteem, levels of confidence and our relationships.  Our self-talk is influenced by our beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world in general.

The problem in the western world is that our culture and philosophy gives us the notion that it is all right to think ourselves as morons, or useless, but it is not acceptable to give ourselves a pat on the back, because it is seen as egotistical.  This is inflexible and if we want to be able to reduce our stress we need to change our internal self-talk and not just accept what we say to ourselves.  It is not selfish or self-centred to think about ourselves.  If we are not feeling our best then we won't be able to give our best.


Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS)

Some of our negative self-talk can be in the form of Automatic Negative Thoughts.  These ANTs can just pop into our heads and can also be just below our conscious level.  Usually when we are not stressed we have a ratio of 2:1 positive to negative thoughts, however when we are under chronic stress our thinking becomes more negative and, while these negative thoughts would help us to deal with a physical threat to our well-being thousands of years ago, they are absolutely unhelpful when dealing with the psychosocial stressors we encounter in our modern world.  In fact the type of negative thinking that the fight/flight response triggers makes complex problem solving more difficult.

To help to reduce our stress it is important to identify these Automatic Negative Thoughts, and take action to deal with them.


Characteristics of Automatic Negative Thoughts

Automatic Negative Thoughts have a number of common characteristics about them.  They are:

  • Automatic (Just pop into your head without you choosing)
  • Not based on accurate assessment
  • Are unrealistic and unreasonable
  • Seem totally believable
  • Make us feel worse
  • Unhelpful
  • Persistent
  • Partly based on a few, isolated facts
  • Are not accurate
  • Tend to be excessively pessimistic
  • Can become a habit
  • Serve no use

Identifying Automatic Negative Thoughts

Half the battle in dealing with automatic thoughts is identifying them.  ANTs can operate just below our conscious awareness, but with time and practice we can access them.  We need to start to tune into our internal self talk, listen to what we are saying to ourselves and start identifying the Automatic Negative Thoughts.  Once we have identified them, we can challenge them to assess their accuracy.


Some Examples of Negative Self-Talk/Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)

        "I'm such an idiot; I can't believe I'm so stupid."

       "He/she is such an idiot; I can't believe he/she is so stupid."

        "This is terrible!"  "This is horrible!"  "I can't stand this!"

        "I should be able to handle this; other people can."

        "He/She makes me so mad."

        "He/she is never there when I need him/her."

        "I can't believe this is happening to me."

       "My upbringing prevents me from loving or trusting people."

        "Life's a bitch and then you die."

        "Things never go right for me."

        Murphy's law "If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong."

        "People can't change, just as a leopard cannot change it's spots."

        "I'm useless."

        "I'm no good", "I am bad."

        "I am a failure."

        "I'll never get another job."

        "I am not a good Mum or Dad."

        "I am worthless."

        "Other people are better than me."

        "I could never do that."

        "I'm not a nice person."

        "There is nothing I can do about it."

        "I'll never be any good at it."

        "It's always my fault."

        "Nobody likes me."

        "I'm not popular."

        "I can't cope."

        "This traffic jam will go on for ever and ever."

        "Why does this always happen to me."

       "This is the worse thing that could ever have happened."

        "I'm stupid."

        "I'll never be able to learn this."

        "I'll never get better."

        "I'm not bright enough."

       "The worst always happens to me."

        "This won't work out."

        "I never get things right."

        "The problems I'm having now will go on forever."


How to Change Our Self-Talk

Self-talk has a powerful effect on our feelings and is often automatic and a habit, but research has shown that it can be changed for a more realistic and accurate self-talk.  In order to help reduce this form of self-induced stress we need to become aware of our internal self-talk and if it is inaccurate or out of proportion then it is important that we begin to change it.

Fortunately our internal self-talk is not fixed irrevocably into stone.  We can change it to one that is more realistic, optimistic and accurate.  Research has shown that positive self-talk helps to reduce stress.  It is not about putting a positive spin on something awful that happens to us but it is about seeing the events that happen to us, in balance.  It is important that we begin to look at what we are saying to ourselves this is the first step towards changing our negative self-talk to become more positive.  A good way of doing this is to start writing down the things we are saying to ourselves and begin to look at them for their accuracy.

Changing our self-talk will not occur overnight, because it has probably taken many years to attain the level of negative self-talk we have achieved, but thinking style is a habit and with time and practice we can change a habit.  It is impossible and unrealistic to think positively 100% of the time, because a certain amount of negative self-talk can be useful to keep us safe, but it is about getting a healthy balance between the two. 


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Thought Stopping and Stress