In this article I would like to highlight some of the practical implications of what psychology knows about the function of self-talk. I will include some useful tips for using coping statements to help ourselves deal with challenging situations.
It is not going to be a guide to cure anxieties, or stronger emotional reactions or problems, because these require a complex therapeutic approach. However, if you are thinking about ways to help yourself feel differently in certain situations, or just improve yourself in certain areas of life, then learning to apply coping statements can be a simple and elegant way to do that.
So why is self-talk important at all?
We know that our emotions, behaviour and thinking are very closely linked together, in an interdependent way. This means that if we deliberately change, in the right way, one element of this ‘triangle’ then it is very likely that there will be changes generated in the others as well. We know that self-talk, things we say to ourselves with our thoughts, is very important in self-control generally. The prominent soviet psychologist Vygotsky theorized that during their development, children internalize social speech: First, talking aloud to themselves (ages 2-5), then gradually fading this loud self-talk into internal self-talk. The function of this internal, private speech is directing and controlling thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.
(It is also interesting to note that people with mental health problems, or anyone simply under great stress, tend to kind of regress to the audible, loud self-talk, which may be an automatic attempt to gain some control.)
As for the neurological mechanisms at play, we know that the prefrontal cortex (where thinking and self-talk take place) can activate parts of the brain that are involved in emotions, like the amygdala, which is responsible for the fear response. So changing, or just quieting down the overly apprehensive self-talk in a challenging situation can mitigate the anxiety response of our nervous system.
Then why not learn how to use private speech more adaptively, to our real benefit?
A coping statement is something we can learn to say to ourselves with the aim of helping ourselves deal, cope with certain situations better. Perhaps with less distress, frustration, or with more ease and poise. So for example somebody, instead of saying: ‘I can’t take this anymore’, can learn to say to himself: ‘It is unpleasant, but I can handle it!’.
One can also learn to say mottos or maxims to remind himself of personal philosophies that would help when dealing with certain things. The stoic philosophical practice emphasised the mental repetition of such useful maxims: E.g. Epictetus used this: “Some things are up to us and others are not.” to help himself let go of frustrations that are related to things that he can not change.
Rules for generating coping statements
Let’s see the basic principles of generating and using coping statements.
• They have to be realistic, believable. This is not a pollyanna kind of positivism, optimism, but rather using realistic, inspiring and supportive statements. Something to which your mind and nervous system could respond by sort of ‘saying’: ‘Ok, that seems within reach, I can tune myself towards that.’
• They should be grammatically positive. Because I am sure you know that saying to yourself e.g ‘Don’t panic!’ in a difficult situation, such as an exam, is not the best self-suggestion one can come up with. The reason is: Negating something may very well increase the possibility of the negated thing occurring and increase its intensity. Because by bringing in this example panic in the sentence, we bring it into our awareness, hence possibly activating our associations, past experiences about panic or anxiety. So instead, it’s more preferable saying something like: ‘I can calm myself down. I am now becoming more steady and centred.’
• It is generally better if self-statements are put in the present tense. So instead of saying ‘I will feel calm on Thursday when I will drive there, it is probably better suggesting to yourself something like: ‘I feel more and more relaxed and natural when I drive.’ Or use a softer way of negating which can be useful not like total negation. So you could suggest to yourself: ‘I am becoming less agitated when I think of driving and I am feeling more confident and natural about it.’
• Say them congruently: Really meaning what you are saying, in a moderate tempo, with conviction, but without too much effort, just naturally.
• They should be of course meaningful/evocative: the meaning of the words has to resonate with you on some level.
I hope that you have found something interesting for yourselves in this article about the benefits of using self-talk more adaptively.
It is important to note though, that the therapy of more pressing difficulties, emotional, psychological issues is more complex and systematic. However, we often make use of coping statements in therapy, usually combining them with relaxation skills, self-hypnosis or the kind of opposite of that: mindfulness and acceptance strategies.
There is a lot to explore in this area and I hope to shed light on other aspects of the relationship between private speech, emotions and behaviour in a following article.
Meichenbaum, D. (1977). Cognitive-Behavior Modification: An Integrative Approach. New York: Plenum Press.