Is Positive Self-talk The Key To Stress Management?
When it comes to stress, one of the biggest contributors is the internal conversation you have with yourself. This dialogue, impacted by your thoughts, emotions and past experiences, is usually helpful and allows you to make sense of daily events, problem solve and make good decisions.
However, when you are feeling fragile, burnt out, overwhelmed or stuck in a pessimistic mindset, your inner chat can fall into automatic negative thought traps which multiply any stress you might be feeling and can leave you feeling worse.
Chances are you’ve experienced one or more of the traps yourself. Six of the most common ones include;
‘Mind reading’ - You feel certain you know what someone must be thinking or feeling about an event or issue.
‘Catastrophising’ - Your mind believes the worst possible outcome will happen despite the lack of evidence.
‘Over-generalising’ - You draw conclusions based on a single piece of evidence (E.g. you drop a mug of tea at breakfast and then assume the rest of your day will be terrible.)
‘Should, must, ought’ - You try to live up to how you think people should behave and then beat yourself up for not doing things right.
‘Emotional Reasoning’ - When emotions overrule rational thoughts/reasoning and you think ‘If I feel that way, it must be true,’ regardless of the evidence.
'Perfectionism' - Trying to uphold impossible standards and to be more perfect; which inevitably sets yourself up for failure.
All of these thought traps contribute to stress by convincing you things are worse than they actually are. They can keep you trapped in a rumination cycle in which the negative emotions generated by going over the thought/event trigger additional negative thoughts, which trigger negative emotions…and you can see the spiral continues.
One way of changing this, and reducing the stress you experience, is to work towards creating a more resilient mindset. This involves increasing your awareness of your thoughts and emotions and trying to identify the type of thought you are experiencing when you feel stressed.
For example, is what you are feeling/thinking linked to what you think someone else is thinking? Are you setting yourself unrealistically high expectations with the ‘I should have…’ self-talk? Or are you playing down all the examples where things turned out okay and are focusing on the one time it didn’t?
To help you identify which category of automatic negative thought you are having, I’ve created a handy guide to the 16 most common thought traps, along with an introduction to the steps you could take to challenge and overcome them.
You can download your copy of 'Free Your Thoughts' here.
Once you know which type of thought it is, it gets easier to explore it. If you are catastrophising, consciously ask yourself what the opposite thought might be; the best possible outcome. Then explore all the evidence for each option, taking care not to overlook, minimise or dismiss any evidence, before deciding what a more realistic outcome is likely to be based on all the evidence.
Try out a new perspective. What would you say to a friend if they told you they've been experiencing these thoughts and feelings?
We are often much harsher with ourselves than we are with others, so check the expectations you have set for yourself are reasonable and appropriate. You can also get get some distance by talking in the third person and using your name to describe how you feel and what you are thinking.
Once you have identified the type of thought, how you are feeling and have explored the evidence supporting/disproving the thought, it is time to create a new positive thought to challenge it. For this you will need to use the facts you found that disproved the thought.
Write out a new positive thought to say to yourself if you notice yourself falling into the trap again. Make sure you acknowledge the thought and the feelings before challenging them. An example might be, "Yes, I am feeling worried that my sales presentation isn't good enough, but, I usually get good feedback; I've done my best in the time I had; my line manager recently told me they're impressed with my work; and my clients value my approach. I can just relax and do what I do best."
You can make it as short or as long as you need for it to work, and you might want to put it somewhere where you can see it. You may need to refine the thought as you go along if it doesn't feel right or doesn't help.
A more simple approach that works for some people, is to just 'flip the script' and apply a positive twist to your negative thoughts. For example:
I'm scared, I've never done this before. > I'm excited about the opportunity to learn something new.
This is too difficult, it will never work. > Let's approach this from another angle and see how we can make it work.
I'm terrible at this, everyone will think it's rubbish. > What can I do to improve my skills? Who could I learn from/ask for feedback before I present it?
Whichever approach you try, don't expect to become a stress-free optimist overnight. It takes practise to create the neural pathways that lead to positive self-talk and 'overwrite' the existing self-critical ones. If you stick with it, eventually your self-talk will become more self-accepting and compassionate.
With your new optimistic state of mind, you are also likely to become more accepting of other people and of daily frustrations. The ability to handle these negative thoughts and stress in a constructive way leads to increased resilience and wellbeing, which in turn allows you to be more optimistic and experience a positive mindset. Win-win!
If you have found this article helpful, you might enjoy my free workbook 'The Secrets of Confidence - 6 Strategies to Break the Cycle of Self-doubt'. It's a practical, 22 page guide to the science behind confidence and self-esteem and the strategies and templates you need to build unshakeable self-confidence and self-belief. Sign up for your copy here.