Reduce Anxiety and Depression by Countering Automatic Self Talk

We all know that we engage in self talk all day long but we are not aware of the crucial role it plays in causing anxiety and depression.  We wake up with the thought how our day is going to be, how we acted in certain situations and we constantly judge ourselves in our respective roles–, mother, father, co worker, friends and other relations. We also assign meaning to the situations we encounter and this meaning is a product of our imagination, subjective bias, and personal experiences. A situation can be neutral but we make it good or bad by our own interpretation. For example, the sun rises and two people look at it. One person looks at it and reacts happily. He begins to plan how he is going to spend this sunny day and make the best of it. However, another person looks at it and it does not give him the same pleasure. His mind is focused on the negative aspect and he feels that the sun is going to bother him while driving eastward. He closes the curtains and blinds and stays home while the other person is planning a picnic with his friends and appears happy. So the sun is neutral but two people can color their perception with their individual interpretations. When we constantly evaluate our everyday situations negatively, it leads to depression and anxiety. Therefore it is very important to notice and be aware of our self talk.

 Self talk is a dialogue that we engage in, with regards to our situations, relationships, events, and outcomes of events. Optimistic people tend to think positive and therefore their self talk is positive and they have higher self esteem. They do not berate themselves and appreciate the positive aspects of the situation. Whereas, pessimistic folks tend to only focus on the negative aspects of the situation and therefore, they moan, whine, and feel depressed. They are also very anxious people and they do not exhibit self confidence when they have to encounter a challenging situation. In short, we are responsible for how we feel. It is easier to blame others for your own feelings and mood versus taking responsibility and believing that it is your thoughts which have caused a change in your mood. It is important to know that people with anxiety always worry about the worst that can happen and their statements to themselves begin with “what if” for example, “what if I cannot handle this situation?” “What if other people notice my anxiety, “what if I fail?” and so on.

Salient Features of Self Talk:

  1. Self talk is generally so automatic and habitual that you don’t even notice it. You do not understand the connection of your self talk and how you feel. However, if you become aware of it, relax and examine what you have been telling yourself, then you will be able to see the connection between your self talk and feelings.
  2. Self talk is also telegraphic in nature. For example, one word acts as a symbol of series of thoughts, memories and associations.   Suppose you are in a situation where you had a panic attack in the past and you say screamingly,” Here it comes”. This phrase will elicit the reaction in you as if you are in the same situation and will begin to experience the same reaction, feelings, and anxiety. It is because your subconscious mind has the memory of the previous attack and you will interpret the new situation as dangerous which makes you feel uncomfortable. You will need to identify your self talk by uncovering your thought patterns from a single word.
  3. Self talk is also irrational but it always sounds like the truth. When you say negative things in a given situation, you tend to make statements which are based on your emotional reactions versus reality. For example, if you are in a grocery store and you say things like, “what if I faint?”, “what if get a heart attack because my heart is racing fast?” These statements may not be reality based and could be a product of your imagination which may not have any logic or reasoning.
  4. Negative Self talk leads to avoidance. Because you scare yourself to face the challenging situations then you say to yourself that you will never encounter situations which cause you distress and anxiety. Therefore, you begin to avoid such situations like elevators, driving on an expressway, going to the grocery store and so on.
  5. Self talk can aggravate your anxiety and cause you to have a panic attack. For example, when you have get a fight or flight reaction,  and  you experience the adrenaline rush, these symptoms can remind you of a previous panic attack and you begin to scare yourself and possibly invite a panic attack by engaging in scary self talk.
  6. Negative self talk is a series of bad habit that you have acquired in your environment while growing up. But the good news is that you can unlearn this habit with conscious effort. Once you realize that you have this tendency and habit, you can learn to do something about it and use techniques like thought stopping to change your self talk.

There are four types of negative self talk:

1.    The Worrier Type:    This type of thinking is very common among people with anxiety and panic disorder. Worrier type people tend to do “what if “thinking and also imagine worst possible scenarios. Their mind dwells on the negative aspects of the situations and it leads to anxiety and panic. For example, “what if l lose control?”, “what if I make a fool of myself when making a presentation?” Worrier type people anticipate the worst, overestimate the odd of something bad and create grandiose images of catastrophe. 

2. The Critic Type:  This type of thinking promotes low self esteem. People with this type of thinking tend to undermine their strength and always find fault in everything they say or do. They are too hard on themselves and overlook their strengths and assets. They perceive themselves as total failure and consequently tend to feel disappointed. If they make one mistake, they make a big deal about it and they are afraid that they will always make the same mistake in the future. People with depression also tend to think critically about themselves and that is why they do not feel very happy even when good things happen to them. Such negative thoughts lead to depression also. For example, when you get a performance appraisal and you get a constructive criticism for only one thing. People with critic sub personality type will filter out the positive feedback of the supervisor and only focus on the one negative comment they got in the performance evaluation.

3. The Victim Type:  This type of thinking also promotes depression. When you feel hopeless and helpless and feel that you are destined for failure and all bad things happen to you. You tend to speak in absolute terms like never, always. For example, “I always fail”, “I can’t reach my goals,” and so on. Victim type of thinking leads to depression and you lose your optimism. People with anxiety and depression with this type of sub personality tend to perceive their future as totally bleak and are afraid to take challenging undertakings due to their persistent negative self talk.

4. The Perfectionist Type:  Perfectionist type of thinking promotes chronic stress as you are always focused on seeing everything perfect. You have difficulty accepting minor imperfections in any situation. You tend to think that your efforts are not good enough and they are not giving you the desired results. This causes frustration and feelings of inadequacy. You become intolerant of mistakes and imperfections and yourself worth begins to depend on external things such as praise, approval from others, money, status and career. When you become demanding of perfection, you tend to get disappointed because your expectations are unrealistic. Setbacks will cause you feelings of depression and stir up anxiety before undertaking any major challenge. You tend to engage in self talk like, “I must always be pleasing to others,””I ought to be perfect all the time.”This kind of self talk leads to anxiety and also depression because you can never appreciate your achievements and always demand perfection.

How to Counter Negative Self Talk

 It is very important to counter negative self talk with positive counterstatements like, “I can do It.” Why am I worrying about it? “In order to counter your self defeating thought patterns you will need to write down your counterstatements for each type of negative self talk and directly refute your negative statements. It might be hard to do it initially because you are so used to saying negative things about yourself but with practice you can break the habit and form a new habit of thinking positive. You also need to put your negative self talk to rational scrutiny by asking Socratic questions like,” What is the evidence for this?”” Is this always true?”” Has this been true in the past?” “What are the odds of this really happening?”
“What is the very worst that could happen?” “Am I looking at the total picture?”” Am I really being fully objective?”

It is important to remember following things when you write your counterstatements.

  1. Avoid using words that connote negative meaning. For example, instead of saying,” I do not feel anxious,” say,” I feel calm”. The reason is that your subconscious mind is used to interpret these negative terms negatively and by using these words, you are likely to trigger those negative associations in your subconscious mind and the result will be more anxiety.
  2. Use present tense when you make the counterstatements. Instead of saying,” I will feel better”, say, “I feel calm and relaxed “ When your self talk is in the present  tense, it gives an impression to the subconscious mind that it is happening now and these positive statements become more effective in reducing your level of anxiety.
  3. It is also important to keep your statements in the first person using “I” statements because it gives you active control of the situation and the positive counterstatements work better in anxiety provoking situations.
  4. It is also crucial to have some belief and conviction in your self talk in order to make it more effective and work in your favor. Beliefs are very important and they have a very strong bearing on how you feel. When you think positive and believe in that positive counterstatement, it gives a message to your subconscious mind that it is really happening and this works in your favor. Additionally, it helps eliminate the feelings of anxiety and depression.

In this way, we see that there is a close connection between what you say and your resulting feelings.

Types of Cognitive Distortions:

When you are depressed and anxious, you tend to make errors in your thinking and your self talk becomes negative. I will use an example of a sales man to illustrate this point. He got an assignment to sell his insurance policy to one hundred clients. He begins to make phone calls to establish contact with the people on his list. He did well up to ninety phone calls. However, as soon as he called the ninety first person on the list, the person hung up on him. As soon as this hang up happened, he began to engage in negative self talk and blamed himself for saying something wrong. Following is the list of cognitive distortions that he made in his thinking as soon as the event of hang up happened. We tend to make these distortions in our thinking too. It is important to learn about these distortions so that you can identify them in your daily thinking and counter them in order to cope with your anxiety and depression.

Overgeneralization:   This error means that you tend to generalize about the possible outcome of a situation based upon your previous experience. Suppose, you experienced a panic attack when you went in the grocery store two days ago. Now as soon as you begin to get ready to go to the store, you start engaging in self talk like, “what if I get a panic attack again?”. Then when you reach the parking lot of the store, you begin to feel that your heart is racing fast, you are breathing fast, sweating and feel like your legs are frozen and you cannot possibly walk to the store because the fear has crippled you. The error of overgeneralization happens automatically and you begin to avoid going to phobic places. This avoidance leads to development of phobias. People who make the error of over generalization need to realize that their fears could be just irrational and by avoiding , you will not learn how to overcome your fear but you will actually feed in to it more. The sales person who got upset about the hang up also over generalized and began to believe that everyone on the list will hang up on him in the future. This kind of error should be disputed by Socratic questions like “what is the evidence for this?”,” What are the odds of this really happening?”,” Has this been true in the past?” Then make counterstatements like, “I approached the person who hung up on me the same way I approached every one else. I did not say anything wrong. It is possible that the guy was not interested in my policy or he could be in the middle of his dinner but I am not responsible for his hang up”.

Catostrophizing:   This distortion simply means that you perceive a situation as absolutely terrible and catastrophic. In the case of the sales person example, he might begin to wonder that he will lose his job. His boss will fire him just because one person hung up on him. He begins to fear that he will not have enough money to bring food on the table and he felt depressed. In reality, his boss does not know anything about the hang up and being a sales person, it is also important to know that you will get some rejection in the process of selling. Having an expectation that everyone on the list, will respond positively to his approach, is totally unrealistic and is bound to give disappointment. It is important to counter such catastrophic thinking by counterstatements like,“ So what if the worst happen in reality? Could I really not handle it” In reality you could find a way to cope with it.

Overestimation:   This type of error means that you overestimate the odds of a bad outcome. It is a deeply ingrained habit and even though you know intellectually that your self talk is inaccurate, you still entertain overestimating thoughts. It is like an automatic process and also habitual. You overestimate about the future and say things like, “I barely managed to do the presentation last time and so next time it will be worse.” Overestimation error continues to cause anxiety by making you imagine greater odds of danger than are really likely. Again, you will need to dispute your self talk with the help of Socratic questions like,” What real evidence exists that this will happen in the future?”, “How often has this happened in the past, looking at this objectively, what are the odds of it really happening?”In the case of the sales person, he could say, My boss has not fired me, I will not lose my job just because one person hung up on me. I will move on to other people in the list and hopefully I will get connected to them”. These positive statements will empower him to continue his assignment and hopefully succeed versus moaning about the one hang up. When we engage in negative self talk, it depletes our energy to continue to make efforts to reach our goals and causes discouragement.

Mental Filter:   This type of distortion occurs when you select out and focus on one negative aspect of a situation so that you ignore any positive aspect of the situation. In the case of the sales person example, he focused on the one hang up but filtered out all the positive responses he got from ninety other phone calls. Filtering out can make you anxious and depressed because you tend to overlook the positive aspects of the situation. You get compliments of everything you cooked but got one feedback about the salt in one dish from a guest and you took it personally as a criticism and began to berate your cooking altogether.  You filtered out all the compliments about other dishes. It is important to counter this kind of distortion with Socratic questions like, “Am I looking at the whole picture?” “Are there positive aspects of this situation that I am ignoring?”

Magnification and Minimization:   When you magnify the negative aspect and minimize the positive aspects of a situation. For example, you did great with your five presentations but one presentation did not go so well and you begin to magnify the negative one and totally discount the ones that went so well. We are all guilty of criticizing our children when they get all A’s but get one C. The child then learns to magnify the C and minimize the A’s he got in other subjects of the report card. This type of distortion signifies the phrase, “making mountain out of mole,” and also refers to stretch or shrink thinking. When we blow things out of proportion and fret over minor pitfalls, we make the error of magnification.

White or Black thinking:   This type of thinking signifies that everything is either white or black and there are no shades in between, in the spectrum.When you engage in absolute thinking and use terms like, always, never, must, should. These terms leave no room for any imperfection and tend to put a demand and expectation that everything should go one hundred percent perfect. In reality, it is not possible and causes you disappointment and frustration. For example, the sales person believed that he should be able to connect with all the hundred persons on his list and he should be able to sell his policy to all of them. So as soon as the hang up happened, he felt discouraged and labeled himself as an inefficient sales person. His anxiety was 10 on a scale of one to ten, in which one is mild and ten is most severe anxiety. He also felt depressed and his depression was 80 % on the scale of 1-100 %, in which one is mild depression and 100 is most severe depression. It is important to be realistic in your expectations to avoid these let downs. When we jump to conclusion about people, events and situations and become rigid in our thinking style, we are making the error of white or black phenomenon.

“Should Statements”:   Perfectionist people tend to engage in this type of distortions regularly. Imposing “should” statements will keep you anxious and depressed. Statements like,” I should always be pleasing and cheerful to others despite how I feel” “I should never be afraid”, “I should be a perfect spouse” These statements lower your self confidence and give you chronic stress. You should use the Socratic questions to counter these distortions and reduce your anxiety by adopting an attitude in which you may be able to tolerate minor setbacks and imperfections. You could say, so what if my one presentation did not go so well? I did exceptionally well in other four. No one noticed anything and overall, I made a good impression.” By saying these counterstatements, you are more likely to accept things when they are not 100% perfect.

Fortune Teller Error:   You make this kind of error when you predict that everything will be bad in a given situation. In the case of example of the sales person, he imagined that all the remaining persons on his list will now hang up on him and he will lose his job. In reality, it has not happened but he automatically thought that this was the case. Such types of distortions lead to depression and you need to be consciously aware of them so that you can challenge your distorted and irrational thinking. The person who is afraid of driving on the express way might think that if he goes on the thruway, he will experience a panic attack. This fear will restrict him and he will become house bound and agoraphobic if he continues to make such predictions.

Jumping to Conclusion:   This type of error occurs when you jump to conclusion without thinking rationally. For example,  an agoraphobic may jump to conclusion that if he goes in the elevator , he will have the same panic attack he had last week. He has not even tried to go and he already assumed that this will happen. When you engage in this type of thinking, you will be afraid to take the elevators and will take the stairs. Avoidance will perpetuate more anxiety when you have to face the situation again. It is important to refute this self talk with coping statements like, “I will give it a trial. I will distract my mind on other things when I ride the elevator and not notice my physical symptoms. It will go fast and before I know it, I will be at the floor I want to go.” When you make counterstatements which focus on your potential, you are more likely to overcome your fear and face the phobic situations.

Mind Reading:   This type of distortion happens when you imagine and project your own thoughts and feelings on to other person and believe that the other people might be saying things about you. For example the insurance agent might think that his work will not be appreciated by his boss and he could be in trouble just because one person hung up on him. Instead of giving him the benefit of doubt, he began to do mind reading and thought that he must have said something stupid and also began to curse the person. People tend to do mind reading when someone does not return the phone call and begin to wonder if they said something wrong and made the other person angry. In reality, the other person could have been busy, went out of town or simply forgot to return the call. It is important to notice this tendency in you and watch out before you engage in mind reading.  

Saying my fault:   This type of error happens when you put the blame on yourself for things that are not in your control. When you have a setback, you tend to berate yourself and begin to believe that you are no good, and doubt your competence. For example, the sales person who says that he is a lousy sales man because he was not able to get connected with one person on the list. The child who gets one C in the report card begins to believe that he is not an intelligent person. This type of distortion promotes depression and low self esteem. It is important to use rational thinking and become more logical when these irrational thoughts appear in your mind. In these situations, you need to learn to give yourself credit for your accomplishments and achievements and not dwell on the set backs. You can always learn from your mistakes and move on. It is better to learn from your mistakes versus blaming yourself for failures. Moreover, each mistake is an opportunity to improve upon in the future. You will be able to reduce your symptoms of anxiety and depression when you adopt a healthier attitude of perceiving things. Again, engage in self talk that promotes your well being versus blaming yourself.  

It is very important to have the conscious awareness of these distortions in your thinking so that you can counter your automatic thinking and use reasoning and logic instead of doing mind reading and blaming yourself. It is important to notice and catch yourself in the act before your automatic thinking leads you to have anxiety and self doubt. The next step is to Pause and ask yourself,” Do I really need to do this to myself?”The third step is to relax and disrupt your thought process by taking some abdominal breaths. You need to let go, slow down yourself and relax. It helps to use the Thought stopping technique which has been illustrated in other blogs written by the writer. Please refer to the blog on OCD, Panic Disorder to learn how to use this technique. Then write down your negative self talk that led you to feel anxious or depressed. This will help you identify your inner dialogue and then the next step is to write your counterstatements next to each negative self talk. This step might require some practice to learn. You need to separate thoughts from feelings. Next, identify the type of negative self talk you engaged in, worrier, critic, victim or perfectionist. Also look at the cognitive distortions that were present in your self talk, for example overgeneralization, filtering etc. Answer or dispute your negative self talk with positive, rational, and self supportive statements. Remember the rules for writing these counterstatements illustrated earlier.

It is very important to do a daily record of dysfunctional thought patterns to be able to come up with adequate counterstatements which will become instrumental in reducing your anxiety and symptoms of depression.Hypnosis can help the person refrain from thinking negative and foster positive thinking. Please visit our Blossom Hypnotherapy page to learn how hypnosis can help reduce symptoms of Anxiety disorders.

Reference:  Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by Edmund J. Bourne, New Harbinger publication, 2005.



One Comment

  1. Marty said:

    Actually I personally found that attacking negative thoughts and fighting against them made them worse. Yes that includes fighting them by forcing myself to think positive. Trying not to think about the elephant in the room only causes you to think about the elephant in the room.

    True positive thinking is positive… But you must take the sting and fear out of negative and dark thoughts. You must recognize your negative thoughts and see them for what they are… Just thoughts. Try to embrace them, welcome them, greet them, treat them tenderly. I started doing that instead to saying “oh no… Here we go again!” once a negative and depressing thought arose.

    Only then did the negative thoughts start to pass by like dark clouds instead of playing in a loop. Once that happened, then my mind was freed up to see things clearly and THEN I started to introduce positive thoughts.

    August 18, 2014

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