Are You Listening?
Self-Talk: That passive voice in your head that comments on everything happening to you. It may just seem like an inner monologue, and it is honestly so present and integrated into our thinking patterns it can sometimes be hard to notice let alone to stop and analyze; but that certainly belies the power it holds over our health and reality.
Improving it has been shown to strengthen your immune system, decrease stress, and reduce pain. Feeding into negative self-talk however leads to increased stress, poor immune health, and declining mental health. Let’s explore how it exactly does that and ways to bring it under control.
But What IS Self-Talk?
Defined by Psychology Today as “the inner voice combining conscious thoughts with unconscious beliefs and biases.” Think of it as the interpreter of your conscious and unconscious mind; it works in both directions with your inner instincts and conscious/present thinking.
Say for instance you are overwhelmed with negative feelings, bubbling up from the depths of your psyche when someone accidentally interrupts you. You know its irrational, so you consult with yourself why you feel this way and find either a positive or negative result. Maybe you deduce it was the lack of sleep from the night before and you decide to be patient by asking nicely for the other person not to do so. Or maybe you lean in on your feelings instead and lash out unnecessarily. Or you even start down a path of thinking that no one really cares what you have to say; no wonder people don’t want to listen to you, you deserve to be interrupted.
All of these are just a few examples of self-talk and the direction it can take. To actually have a deep effect on one’s psyche or physicality however, it uses two principles; repetition and reinforcement.
Are Things Getting A Little Repetitive In Here?
Driving without really paying attention to what you’re doing, memorizing a list of vocabulary words over and over for an upcoming quiz, a gymnast perfecting her technique to where she doesn’t have to consciously put effort into her actions anymore; all of these are examples of your brain being affected by repetition, and self-talk can be affected the same way.
To break down how this works picture the neurons (the information givers/receivers) and the systems that connect them as a power grid for a city. Your neurons would be the building and poles where the signals/electricity travel to. Said signals are carried by what is called an axon and are insulated by a fatty substance called myelin; just like how electricity is carried through an insulated wire. The better insulated the cord, the faster the signal travels from neuron to neuron.
Sending the same signal from one neuron to another ( repeating the same action again and again) helps your brain produce a stronger axon and myelin, until it will actually take more effort for your brain to deviate from that path when you try something new.
Conditioning and Reconditioning
Your subconscious is constantly learning and analyzing the environment around it to help those axons out and is a big influencer of bodily processes. A psychologist named Pavlov coined the term conditioning to explain this. To break it down simply, he discovered that your brain naturally learns to associate responses to stimuli that become associated with other stimuli; your instincts and bodily reactions controlled by the brain learn to react to things that are associated with the thing that gave you the original said reaction.
He showed this by measuring how much a dog did or did not salivate when presented with food and did or did not salivate when presented with a bell. Obviously, the dog would only drool for the food and not the bell. Pavlov changed that by repeatedly ringing the bell when giving the dog food; this taught the dog that it would get food when the bell was rung. Eventually, after all these repetitions, Pavlov discovered that by ringing the bell without presenting the food, the dog would salivate just as much as if it was presented with food right in front of it.
This may be a simple way to express how our instincts are formed but you can see it with other extreme examples such as a teenager learning to associate food with her being ugly and undesirable, eventually snowballing into a full-blown eating disorder. A war veteran’s body shutting down in anxiety to the response of thunder after naturally associating death and dying with the similar sounds of the fusillades of war. Talking to yourself in a positive or negative manner can and will teach your brain to instinctually react to things.
Nourish Your Mind
Know that changing your self talk to be healthier will take patience.
We all have a veritable mountain of thinking patterns and reinforcements within our brains to work through, especially if you’ve never sat down and actually tried to fix your thinking. It thankfully won’t take the same amount of years the negative thinking has been building up, but respect the fact that due to those years it will take a decent amount of time and investment into yourself.
An easy way to get started is reframing anything negative thing you say about yourself:
- “I can’t get anything right.” transformed into “I haven’t figured it out yet.”
- “I haven’t done this before so there’s no way I’ll get this right.”/ “This is a new opportunity for me to learn something.”
- “I screwed up.” / “Mistakes are natural, what can I learn from this?”
- “No one likes me.” / “I like me.”
These statements aren’t different when it comes to the truth and aren’t sugar-coating the situation. Rather, it is a more fresh and healthy perspective on all the inconveniences and sorrows that trouble us.
Try to check in with yourself whenever you are having an off time/day. Giving yourself the time you deserve to process your emotions instead of just sweeping them under the rug for them to lurk within your subconscious later certainly helps.
Lastly, try therapy. Getting a neutral perspective really helps you catch fallacies in your logic/emotions and thinking patterns. Let alone you are getting out any negative experiences that may be lurking as well.
It may seem like an after school special and doesn’t necessarily look life-changing on the surface, but I promise, pulling yourself out of a negative perspective when it comes to you will make your self-esteem veritably soar.
There are plenty of sources of criticism out there in the world that will constantly put a check on your pride and arrogance; why not be on your own side for once?