Watch What You Say—to Yourself

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Singer HeadshotJack Singer, clinical psychologist and author of “Seven Super Strategies for Success Over Stress,” which appears in the summer digital-only issue of Educational Leadership, explains why we need to combat negative self-talk and how doing so reduces stress.

As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of people struggling with the stressors in their lives. Take Connie, a middle school teacher. Her mother died, her husband left her six months later, and both of these events happened soon after she began a master’s program. Losing her two most important support systems within six months had catapulted her into a depression that manifested itself in sleeping difficulties and exhaustion, which made getting to school on time and teaching a grueling task for her. Connie was on the verge of quitting her job because she feared she wouldn’t be able to deal with its requirements.

Connie was doing what a lot of people do in times of stress, especially when a series of bad things happen in such a short timeframe. She was “catastrophising” these events in her mind, interpreting them in a particularly negative way. Much research has shown that it’s not the stressors in life that do us in, but our interpretation of those events; our “self-talk” ultimately forms our beliefs and attitudes about those events. Connie’s self-talk included believing that she couldn’t live without her husband, especially now that her mother was no longer there for her; that she couldn’t concentrate on her studies, so she’d have to quit her master’s program; and that the stresses of teaching would put her over the top, so she should quit teaching, too.

We all have this propensity for negative self-talk, which is why I take aim at it in my article, “Seven Super Strategies for Success Over Stress.” Taking charge of your internal dialogue is so important that it’s the first of the seven key stress-prevention strategies I discuss.

So, what happened with Connie when she learned how to replace her negative self-talk with a more positive dialogue? She began to envision a possible relationship with a more caring partner. She realized she had more time now than in the past and that she actually could fit in her master’s class. And she began to focus much of her spare time on deepening her relationship with her father and sister.

Connie also came to see that quitting her teaching job would only increase her stress. So she decided to keep her job and stay in her master’s program. Her focus on teaching picked up quickly, and within eight months, she had finished her master’s degree, was feeling much better, and was even nominated for Teacher of the Year by her principal!

The moral of the story? Take charge of your internal dialogue. Nip those negative thoughts in the bud and replace them with rational, healthy thoughts that are calming and reinforcing—and see where those new thoughts can take you!