Stress Ninja: Harness Your Self-Talk & Cope With Stress

November 12, 2011

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I talk a lot about stress here on Savvy Health, but I recently started using the term Stress Ninja and I must say it’s kinda growing on me.

Anyway, today I’m going to talk about a stress management strategy that is pretty key. Not the easiest thing to master, but one with powerful effect. And once you get started, you’ll find it doesn’t take any extra time to incorporate into your life.

We’re all stressed. You’re stressed; I’m stressed. Trouble is, most people have no idea where to begin to help themselves deal. And way too many people figure that stress is an external thing, stuff that’s being done to you, and what can you do about that, after all?

But the truth is, there are a lot of coping strategies—a lot. Today I’m going to discuss reprogramming your “self-talk”. For the record, self-talk is a different animal than repeating mantras or affirmations (things you consciously try to repeat to yourself like “I’m worth it” and “I deserve love” and that sort of thing). In contrast, self-talk is largely unconscious and automatic. And it can be a big problem.

How Self-Talk Influences Our Emotions

The things we say to ourselves, our own little inner voice, creates our emotional reactions. Something happens, you interpret those events in a certain way, and that makes you feel a certain way. For example:

Say you get passed over for a great job opportunity. This is a bad event. You think: “Why does this ALWAYS happen to me? Nothing ever goes the way I want it to….”

And the result? You feel bad. Helpless, frustrated, depressed, hopeless, angry, whatever…

But, if your reaction and your self-talk was something different, you would feel differently about what just happened. That’s the order of things: event > self-talk interpreting the event > emotional reaction.

So here’s the good news: you can learn to control your self-talk. It’s a habit, like many other things, and you can change habits. Not easily, but they can be changed. And when you control your self-talk, you control your emotional reactions.

Reprogramming Step 1: Start tuning in to your self-talk.

You particularly want to identify the unhelpful and destructive self talk. Clues you want to watch out for: when you hear yourself using the words: never, should, always, forever . 

Negative self-talk often falls into two categories: statements that “awfulize”, and statements that “absolutize”. When you “awfulize”: you make catastrophic interpretations of what’s happening. This is the worst thing ever…etc. When you “absolutize”: you apply this situation to every aspect of your life, or all events in the past, present, and future.

Once you become aware of your self-talk, and then once you start to clue into the particularly destructive brands of self-talk that you indulge in, now it’s time to reprogram that self-talk.

Reprogramming Step 2: Analyze your self-talk statements.

To do that, I want you to think of a situation, and think of the self-talk you typically engage in. It’s best if you can think of an exact situation, and best if you can think of it when you’re feeling calm, safe, and not in the heat of the moment. Now examine your thoughts on what happened.

For example: my son spills his drink all over the dinner table.

I think: this always happens. Why is dinner always ruined by this? When will we ever have a nice, peaceful dinner again. And the resulting emotion of my thoughts? I feel miserable, hopeless, and angry.

Now, I take a hard look at my statements: “This always happens.” Is this true? From a strictly literal perspective, does this always happen? No. This is me, absolutizing.

Was dinner ruined by this? No, of course not. Just me, awfulizing. We’re still eating, we’ve had a conversation (sort of), the food tastes good, and we’re all together.

We’ll never have peaceful dinner again? Not true, of course. Relatively speaking, the time when my kids are likely to spill their drinks is a short time.

So I know these statements are exaggerations, and I’m indulging in helpless self-pity.

Now, I need to replace this self-talk with something more helpful. And this is the trick!

Reprogramming Step 3: Replace your self-talk.

Continuing on the above example, I could think it through and come up with these ideas:

“This is just a mess that needs to get cleaned up; nothing more.”

“A spilled drink hardly has the power to ruin an entire meal, it can get cleaned up in a matter of seconds. Getting angry and irritable and staying in a bad mood, on the other hand, DOES have the power to ruin an entire meal.”

“Spilled drinks are part of childhood; this will become part of my memories of having small kids.”

These are much more rational, logical statements. And will certainly help me feel more in control, less overwhelmed, and less stressed, as a result.

 Of course, changing your self-talk will take a lot of work and certainly won’t happen instantly. But the more you work to become aware, debate the statements, and replace the statements…it will become a new habit, and will help to developing a much healthier, more positive state of mind, which in turn will help you to stress less, and be much happier.

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