Sorry about the break folks! A couple of weeks ago I ran an online coaching group with a colleague about ‘Ditching the self-trash talk’ to help reduce stress. You might find it useful to browse through these notes.
Let’s begin by getting some understanding about ‘stress’. It gets a bad name for sure but actually some stress is not all bad and can be helpful, we might call this ‘good stress’. When we want to achieve things, ‘good stress’ helps us feel a little pressure to achieve our goals and fulfil our potential. Research shows that a moderate level of stress makes us perform better. It also makes us more alert and can help us perform better in situations such as job interviews or public speaking. Stressful situations can also be exhilarating and some people actually thrive on the excitement that comes with dangerous sports or other high-risk activities.
But stress is only healthy if it is short-lived. Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to illness and physical and emotional exhaustion. Taken to extremes, stress can be a killer. The trouble occurs when the level of stress outweighs our ability to cope with it, so we might say that frequency, intensity and duration are key aspects here. This level of stress will be different for everyone and it’s a good idea to consider regularly whether you are managing your stress levels well.
So, some stress at a low level can be good for us. What happens when that level exceeds our coping ability? There are two main reactions to ‘bad stress’: first, the body reacts through a system called ‘fight or flight’ or psychologists often refer to it as ‘the threat system’. The brain reacts as if there is danger and a number of chemical and biological mechanisms will begin to become activated. We start to feel hot and bothered, why? Our heart rate and blood pressure have increased, we have adrenaline, a stress hormone, rushing around our body, our muscles become tense because if we are in danger we may need to flee or fight. Second, what we are ‘thinking’ about becomes very, very narrow. We will only be focused on our plight and we don’t have access to our more sophisticated ways of thinking, that part of our brain literally shuts down on us. This is for our survival, if you are in a dangerous situation we don’t want you ‘pondering, judging, analysing, contemplating, reasoning’ whether you should get out… we just want you to save yourself!
Can you think of a couple of things that are causing you stress at the moment?
There is a mass of research out there about how to reduce your stress for typical types of stressful situations, from behavioural changes such as limiting the number of things you do through to diet, yes there are even foods that have been shown to help you manage your stress better and those foods that seem to exacerbate stress. Obvious culprits are caffeine and some medications.
One of the aspects of stress management that is little talked about is the role of self-talk and how it relates to minor but accumulative stressors. These stressors are not necessarily the classic ones on the list, but maybe just everyday challenges that we react to as if they are stressors because of our negative self-talk. Or they can literally grow from our self-talk alone and not be related to any external stressor.
We have thousands and thousands of thoughts every day. Many of them come in the form of self-talk. Self-talk is that kind of soundtrack that is constantly playing in your head and its impact can be dramatic. When we are born, we are whole, spiritual, mental, physical, emotional and psychological beings. Look at small children, they believe they will be astronauts, they believe their scribble is a great picture of their house, they believe in the possibility of everything.
Then we start to ‘learn’ how we ‘should’ be, how we ‘should’ look, ‘should’ behave and even think (I will never be an astronaut, I cannot paint). We start to speak to ourselves in negative damning ways we would never use with others. Our self-talk begins to take on a strong critical tone that has a continuous loop, feelings of shame are evoked, “I’m not good enough, pretty enough, adept enough”, “I am abandoned/rejected, worthless, helpless” etc; it is this that can lead to both mental and physical stress.
Can you write down your thoughts about those stressful situations you detailed earlier?
How can we counter this critical voice? The first approach to ditch the self-trash talk is about compassion.
Compassion means ‘the commitment to reduce suffering’.
What we know from neuroscience research is this: When you do a GENUINE compassionate act, your heartrate comes down. In this moment we secrete the hormone oxcytocin and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure are activated. I emphasise ‘genuine’ because it must be without hidden agenda or expectations of being praised.
Now if you think about words such as kindness, empathy, understanding, helpfulness, thoughtfulness, and rate yourselves out of 10, how compassionate a person do you feel you are towards other people; think about those people really close to you, then your friends, acquaintances and the stranger on the street?
We also know that when we feel anxious, angry, shame or disgust, which our inner critical voice often shunts us into feeling through cruel self-talk, these emotions will set off the threat system which makes whatever stressor we are trying to deal with feel even worse.
Please consider all these words connected to compassion again: kindness, empathy, understanding, helpfulness, thoughtfulness, caring… and APPLY THEM TO YOURSEL. How do you rate yourself out of 10 in terms of how compassionate is your self-talk? This is how you talk to YOU.
Now please go back to your thoughts about your stressful situations, can you reframe these into more compassion self-talk?
Many people find at this point that they have a bit of a lightbulb moment as they realise just how critical their self-talk is. We need to find ways to move that inner critic off the centre stage and make room for compassionate self-talk. Please understand that compassion will not let you off the hook. But it will not beat you up for your errors and make you feel shame. All communication from the compassionate self is understanding, honest and kind. The tone is kind, the delivery is kind.
Strategies for ditching the self-trash talk:
One of the things we realise about negative self-talk, is that it quickly picks up certain patterns of thinking that we use repeatedly and usually people are unaware of the patterns they are using. If you click here, it will direct you to the blog on this topic, have a read and then come back.
Ok let’s make some lasting change by following these 8 steps. Remember that you have been using your negative self-trash talk for some time so it takes practice to make change, but no time like the present. Some of these will be more helpful to you than others, that’s fine, just try to be open minded and see what resonates.
- Stop. Breathe. Be aware. Self-trash talk is so natural you may not even realise what you’ve been saying to yourself. You need to be aware of the problem before you can set about changing it. To become more conscious of the running commentary you create about your life, pay attention to your moods. If your mood is negative, pay attention to the things that you are saying to yourself and about yourself and how they make you feel.
- Give your inner critic a name – preferably a silly one! Then you can chat to it, and say ‘oh hi Maybel’ I hear you but I want to make room for my compassionate self-talk.
- Disrupt these old patterns of thinking! Just because you are saying it to yourself, DOES NOT MAKE IT TRUE. Develop a realistic viewpoint. Don’t be afraid to challenge your critical self-trash talk! Tell yourself out loud that the comments are untrue and that you are over-reacting. Give your rant a name too: ‘this is my friends are better than me story’; ‘this is my I don’t get enough done story’; ‘this is my no-body likes me story.’ This helps to highlight the repetitive nature of your inner critic, the thoughts are not VALID THEY ARE JUST HABIT!
- Answer the QUESTION! People routinely ask “How could I have been so stupid?” “Why did I do that?” “When will I learn?” they then just move onto the next idea/worry without actually answering these questions. If you ask the questions out loud, LISTEN for the answers, you will enable your amazing problem solving skills. Pay attention to what turns up, say that out loud too. Don’t leave a negative question hanging in the air, try to generate answers.
- What would your best friend say? This is really helpful in creating alternative viewpoints, you can literally ask your friend but more helpfully you can make yourself imagine what he/she would say. The power of imagining what your friend might say is actually you getting in touch with yourself, you are just using your imaginary friend’s talk as a stepping stone. Become a friend to yourself. Practice talking to yourself as if you were a loving friend, be truthful and supportive.
- Put thoughts in a box. When we are beating ourselves up, a tiny mistake is inflated into an epic typhoon of failure. Notice the negative thought, breathe, narrow the thought and put it in an imaginary box, the smallest you can imagine. So a thought such as ‘I’m rubbish, I’m not coping, it’s going to be a disaster’ can be reframed into ‘I am very busy. I can do this bit by bit’.
- Use distancing from the thought: for example ‘I’m so disorganised, I’ll never get this done’, train yourself to say ‘I notice I’m having a thought about not getting this done’, this helps you to be more objective and not catastrophise, it actually helps you to ‘leave the thought there’ and not engage further with it.
- Finally: Be consistent in your practice. You didn’t develop negative self-talk overnight, it came with tons of practice doing the same thing over and over. So, this change is going to need consistent practice too. As soon as you hear that negative self-trash talk starting up, force yourself to find a kinder, more supportive message that you can give yourself. Your inner dialogue will grow wiser and with practice your self-talk will become kinder.