Be careful how you talk to yourself… because you are listening.
Many of the things we say to ourselves, we would never say to someone else.
Often when clients say particularly judgmental or mean things about themselves, I ask if they would speak that way to a loved one. The answer is invariably “no.”
For persons dealing with anxiety or depression, negative self-talk can be the engine that perpetuates sadness and suffering. The good news is that with focused attention and perseverance, negative self-talk can be transformed into statements of comfort and calm.
Cognitive-behavioral therapists work with clients to identify distorted beliefs and assumptions that underpin negative thought patterns. Some people interpret any challenging situation as a failure. Others imagine only the direst outcome when plans start to derail.
Negative expectations and negative thoughts color our emotional state and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When an anxious person experiences those first pricks of panic, it is often the expectation, such as “I’m going to have a panic attack and look like an idiot,” that feeds the panic cycle.
Let’s take a look at some alternate self-talk strategies:
“This will pass.” No emotional state is permanent. As a function of the fight-or-flight cycle, intense anxiety might be extremely uncomfortable but is not sustainable. We can remind ourselves that regardless of its intensity, anxiety always ends.
“I’ve been here before.” Similarly, we have all lived through anxious and sad times. Knowing that these struggles are a natural (and transitory) part of life can help keep them in perspective.
“Breathe in, breathe out.” When we focus on a bodily process like breathing, we bring our attention into the present moment. As we focus on “being here, now” we shift away from regret about the past or fear about the future.
“I have some tools.” Anxiety and depression can bring with them a sense of hopelessness, a sense of being at their mercy. Replace negative thoughts with a reminder of what can help: going for a walk, calling a friend, petting the dog or saying a prayer. No matter how unpleasant the emotion, there is always some tool available to shift the focus in a more adaptive direction.
Maria Malcolm, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and associate with Psychological & Counseling Associates of the Lowcountry, LLC in Bluffton.