When we talk about self-care, we often think about external stimuli that help us battle everyday stress. Taking a walk, going on vacation, meeting with friends and family, eating healthy food, exercising, learning something new, doing something exciting, going for a massage, and many more come to mind. All these examples are great choices of activities that help us lower our stress level and balance our emotional selves. However, there is one very important aspect that we often forget to address when we embark on a journey of self-care – negative self-talk!
Our brain is a magnificent thought-producing machine. It comes up with new ideas, stores and recalls wonderful images of our experiences, and provides us with millions upon millions of thoughts every day. However, at times, negative thoughts and memories come to the surface, often flooding our consciousness. Have you ever felt like a negative thought could not leave your mind regardless of how hard you tried to forget it or ignore it? It almost feels like the more you try to forget it, the more your brain tries to remember it and focus on it. These could be phrases that you have heard in the past, or some persistent messages from your childhood. These also could be ideas that stem from a recent failure or painful experience. In any case, these thoughts can become very heavy to bear on your shoulders. It is important to recognize that this experience can be overwhelming for anyone. You might even start to believe these negative thoughts because they are so persistent and you feel like you cannot escape them. In that moment, you might succumb to the power of your brain’s memory and accept these negative thoughts as the ultimate truth and reflection of your true self. There is great danger in this, as these thoughts can become so strong that they turn into your everyday mantra, leaving you with no space to breathe.
Recognizing that the negative self-talk spiral can happen to anyone, and you might have experienced it already, it is important to know how to take care of our thoughts and how to cope with negative self-talk.
Here are some examples of trigger thoughts that can start a whole cascade of negative self-talk, increasing your cognitive vulnerability:
__”I am so stupid”
__”I will never be able to do this”
__”There is no point in trying”
__”I’ll never achieve anything”
__”People always hurt me”
__”I am unlovable”
__”I am a failure”
__”It was my fault”
__”I can’t trust anyone”
__”There is something wrong with me”
__”It will never stop”
__”No one cares about me”
__”I don’t deserve to be loved/happy/successful/__________________”
__”I am incompetent”
__”I am going to be alone forever”
__”I am a bad friend/son/daughter/employee/parent/_______________”
__”I can’t make it in life without the help of _______________________”
These thoughts can prove to be a powerful source of your distress. However, it is important to remember that even though it is difficult to ignore them and escape them, it is possible to learn to replace them with some coping thoughts that eventually will change the way you think, literally re-writing and rewiring your brain.
Coping thoughts can help you soothe your emotions and rebalance yourself when you are in distress. They are statements that remind you of some commonly held truths, your strengths, and your successes. If you find yourself in a situation when you begin addressing yourself in a negative way, use a self-encouraging coping thought that counteract the negative thought. You can create your own list of coping thoughts that you find powerful, encouraging, and motivating. Think of a list of negative thoughts above. Indicate those that apply to you and add those that you know you often think about. Then, keeping that list in sight, create a new list of coping thoughts that you think counteract those negative thoughts well. You can always search for more encouraging statements on the internet, ask your friends to come up with some, or look for some encouraging quotes that are easy to remember. If you are religious, you may want to use quote from your religious text that apply to your daily situations and can help you feel encouraged or motivated in a stressful situation.
Here is a list of some positive coping statements to start with:
___ “You don’t need to be perfect! Everyone makes mistakes”
___ “This too shall pass”
___ “My fear/sadness/anxiety won’t kill me. It just does not feel good right now”
___ “These are just my feelings, and eventually they will go away”
___ “It is ok to feel sad/anxious/angry/afraid sometimes”
___ “I can think different thoughts if I want to”
___ “My thoughts don’t control me; I control my thoughts”
___ “I am not in danger right now”
___ “Thoughts are not facts”
___ “It was not my fault. Some situations are out of our control”
___ “My feelings are like a wave that comes and goes”
___ “I have survived other situations like this before, I will survive this one too”
___ “I can ride this out and not let it get to me”
___ “I am strong enough to handle what is happening to me”
___ “This is an opportunity for me to learn how to cope with my fears”
___ “I can take all of the time I need right now to let go and relax”
Remember, it is not useless to continue doing this exercise on a regular basis as it work on a neuropsychological level. Your brain houses about 100 billion neurons (more for children and adolescents) that interact between each other with the help of synapses. To simplify the process let’s visualize a pathway between point A and point B. When a stressful situation happens, a neuron A fires or activates. You start thinking a negative thought – your neuron B activates. Since they fired in close timing, they connect with a pathway. So, what happens when we react with a negative thought (neuron B) each time the stressful situation happens (neuron A)? We strengthen the pathway that our brain laid out the first time. Think of a grassy meadow. If we want to cross it, and there is no path in sight, we lay out a new path by stumbling through the grass. The next time you want to cross that meadow, will you stumble through the grass again or use the path you’ve already created? Yes, the majority of us will use the old path. So, each time you are near that meadow you end up using that path over and over again, until even grass does not grow there anymore, and you don’t even question which way to go, stepping on that path. It is exactly what happens in your brain. When you use negative self-talk each time you encounter a certain negative situation, the synapses (pathways in your brain) become stronger and more powerful, making it more and more difficult to see any other way each time that happens. Thus, to change how we think, we should not avoid the path, but consciously make a new one. Afterwards, we have to consciously choose that new path until the old path is covered with grass again.
McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.