By Thomas Sutherland, MA, LPC, NCC
Many of us want to reduce anxiety. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or other attention-focusing exercises, can be helpful. Practicing healthy self-talk is another. But it’s more than just positive thinking. Let’s look at the difference between the two.
Positive thinking can simply be thoughts or statements that are encouraging or hopeful. While we can all use encouragement and hope to focus on our goals, especially when we are faced with obstacles or challenges we didn’t expect, positive thinking doesn’t always provide us with the most helpful approach. For example, “I’m going to win the lottery this week,” is a pleasant thought, but repeating it numerous times isn’t going to improve our chances, no matter how much we believe it. While this type of talk may feel good at the time, we may just be setting ourselves up for disappointment. In this particular example, we also are relying on random chance to make us happy. Relying on external forces diminishes, or even removes, our personal control, and subjects us to their whims. It’s not exactly reliable. Healthy self-talk is a little different. While it is positive in the sense that it is designed to be beneficial, it doesn’t involve making idealistic or false promises. It also doesn’t make us dependent on external forces, so we retain personal control of what happens. Healthy self-talk is a statement or thought that meets two criteria: it must be helpful and realistic.
For example, “Though I won’t likely ever win the lottery, I’ll buy a ticket this week just because it’s fun.” Or, simply, “I’ll buy a lottery ticket just because it’s fun.” In this example, we are focusing on what we can control, which is having fun. We also aren’t setting ourselves up for disappointment. This statement is both helpful (allowing some fun after a long work week) and realistic (we can definitely control whether we will buy a ticket). We can use healthy self-talk to help manage distressing thoughts and reduce anxiety. Let’s say we’re worried about work. Here is a simple process that we can use to develop healthy thinking:
- Identify the distressing thought.
- Tell why it is distressing.
- Create a healthy self-talk statement that tempers the distress.
- I’m worried I’ll make a mistake.
- It bothers me because I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble with my boss.
- If I make a mistake, I’ll apologize and fix it if I can. If I can’t fix it I’ll remember not to repeat it.
- I’m worried about my meeting presentation.
- I’ve never done this before and I’m afraid I’ll look stupid.
- I’ll prepare the best I can, and if I make mistakes I’ll smile and joke about this being my first presentation.
- I’m worried about getting laid-off.
- If that happens I won’t be able to pay my bills.
- I’ll update my resume so it’s ready if I get laid off, or I’m going to look for other jobs now, in case I get laid off soon.
That’s it. You can do this with virtually any distressing thought. Remember that your healthy statement must be helpful and realistic. You may also need to follow up with actions, as in the last example. Although it won’t likely get rid of the distress entirely if you spend some time repeating it your distress will likely drop at least a little, especially if you come up with one you really like. Repeating it in your head is fine. However, you might find that repeating it out loud can be a little more impactful. It may sound silly at first, but that’s because it’s a new strategy. After you’ve gotten used to practicing it that silly feeling will go away.