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Many of us are quick to roll our eyes at bad advice, especially when it comes to our mental health. From the “cheer up” nudge when we’re depressed, to the “don’t worry” suggestion when we’re very much worried, there’s not much of a benefit to the class of support that just tells us to stop feeling the feelings we’re feeling.
At first glance, the same might feel like it’s true of another often-dismissed piece of advice: “Think positive.”
We get it: If you could think positively, surely you would, right? In a world where sources of anxiety are many and reassuring certainties are few, who wouldn’t want to think positive?
Unlike some of these other not-so-sage nuggets of wisdom, however, there’s truth to the idea that positivity can help you — if you think about it as a practice and not a state of being.
Positive self-talk is this practice, and there are many ways it can be of great benefit to you and your anxious brain, if you know how to use it.
Here’s how positive self-talk can help.
It might be helpful to learn a bit more about what positive self-talk might be. It’s typically a way of thinking about yourself, your life, and the world around you with a general optimistic filter. It’s an inner monologue that is designed to empower and encourage you, and build you up in your endeavors.
You’ve likely engaged in positive self-talk in the past. It’s that moment of self encouragement before a presentation, performance or test — the one where you simply tell yourself, “You can do this,” in your own head.
Positive self-talk might be best described as motivational, constructive and reassuring. It may sound like:
I deserve this reward.
I earned these honors and accolades.
I am capable of achieving this goal.
I can overcome this challenge.
I am worthy of this person’s affection.
It’s a good skill to have; evidence suggests that positive self-talk can replace negative thoughts and emotions. It can benefit anyone, too, whether you’re an athlete, artist, or a flirty single gal working up the courage to introduce yourself to a new crush.
In case you were wondering, yes: Positive self-talk is the opposite of negative self-talk. And negative self-talk can be a significant problem for some people.
Negative self-talk is a distortion of reality — if the positive voice in your head is telling you that you’re worthy and capable, negative self-talk tells you the opposite.
Negative self-talk might sound like:
I can’t do this.
Everyone is going to know I’m a failure.
I’m going to embarrass myself.
I don’t deserve ___.
The truth, however, is that most of this is only in your head. You are not destined to fail, you are not unworthy and these thoughts are not reality stepping in to encourage you to accept defeat.
Instead, negative thoughts are usually intrusive thoughts, distorted by your fears, anxieties and doubts.
Negative self-talk can reinforce negative behaviors and actions and ways of seeing yourself, but positive self-talk can have the opposite effect.
Positive self-talk can be a great tool for people suffering from anxiety, because it can help you reframe uncertainties and fears into opportunities and possibilities.
The fact is that negative thoughts can exacerbate mental health issues and mood disorders, and over time your mental health might very well begin to suffer from chronically negative thoughts.
Over time, this can lead to serious issues, and make your negative thoughts into patterns of depressed or anxious thinking.
Positive self-talk isn’t an antidote for anxiety or depression, but it can certainly replace negative thoughts in a way that can have long term benefits for your mental health.
When you can prevent yourself from exclusively considering the worst-case scenarios, and can instead shift your focus to what is possible, you will generally trend in a more positive, upbeat, optimistic direction with your thinking — and that’s something that can act like a shield against anxiety and depression.
The benefits of positive self-talk go beyond “being less negative.” Consider the following:
Positive self-talk has been shown to help athletes focus better and improve muscle memory in competition.
Positive thinking can help athletes and performers generally create an ideal state of performance — a sort of perfect trance where they feel totally in control.
Keeping your thoughts positive can help you overcome your own limitations rather than be restricted by them, simply by talking yourself through to your goal.
The benefits of positive self-talk last beyond the moment, and can color future experiences with positivity with a sense of positive momentum.
Positive thinking is thought to improve physical health, immune health and cardiovascular health — reducing your risk of heart disease and offering other health benefits.
Positive thought patterns can lower your risk of depression and potentially increase your lifespan, meaning you’ll live happier and longer.
Thinking positively can help you assume the best in other people and yourself.
With a benefit sheet like that, there’s really no reason not to try talking to yourself more positively. Hey, you can start by asking yourself, “What have I got to lose?”
It might seem like a simple strategy, but positive self-talk can have some structure, and there are particular times and circumstances in which it can be particularly effective.
There are ways to begin practicing positive self-talk in specific areas of your life. You might consider starting with some of these exercises:
Negative self-talk creeps in when we have moments of doubt and uncertainty, and it’s particularly in these times when you need to be most vigilant in identifying it and shutting it out. Negative thoughts are cognitive distortions: filtered ways of interpreting information that don’t reflect the reality you’re living in.
When something seems bad, ask yourself if it’s really that bad, or if you’re just focusing on worst-case scenarios. There may be many layers to something — there may be middle ground. Not everything is black and white.
Replace those “What could go wrong,” thoughts with “What could go right?”
Does this person really hate you? Are you really in trouble? Or are you just making assumptions?
Believe it or not, we unconsciously choose how to perceive things, and most of the time, we do so incorrectly. A coworker’s gruff tone might not be your fault for example, and likely has nothing to do with you.
Try rephrasing your thoughts when you feel your mind labeling you. You’re not a klutz when you drop a glass. Instead, say, “Accidents happen.” The negative voice doesn’t get to lead the conversation; you’re in control, and you choose how to see things.
Part of positive self-talk is also remembering to add context. It’s easy to call ourselves stupid when we get a trivia question wrong, for example. But what impact did that really have on your life? Will you remember it in two weeks? Chances are, the thing that you’re beating yourself up over isn’t worth the energy.
Sometimes, spilling a jar of tomato sauce stains everything. Sometimes, it makes a mess worth laughing about. It’s up to you to decide which viewpoint you take.
Positive self-talk may be harder sometimes than others — and that’s normal. What’s not normal is being unable to see goodness or express the positive at all.
If this sounds familiar, it might be time to seek support, because your negative self-talk may have veered into the territory of clinical depression.
Depression and anxiety can take many forms, but online therapy will be able to help you sort through these various mood disorders and identify what you’re struggling with. A healthcare professional can also help you identify effective treatments to make your fight easier. Therapy is effective with both anxiety and depression, and in particular you might consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is essentially guided positive thinking.
A healthcare provider might also recommend medications like antidepressants to combat more serious patterns of negative thought, as these medications can help you balance your brain’s supply of the mood hormone serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects the regulation of your moods).
Being a positive person is about more than positive and negative self-talk patterns: It's about how you power through difficult times, how you maintain a positive outlook on life, and what you do to respond to negative thinking.
Failing at these challenges in your daily life doesn't make you a negative person any more than it makes you a failure. What it does make you is a person in need of some support.
Quality of life isn't just about being happy all the time; it's also about how we respond to stressful situations.
The right way to respond when you're having a tough time is to ask for help. It can be hard, but getting the support you need is crucial to your happiness.
If you're ready to take the next step, check out our online mental health services including online therapy. You deserve to feel positive — and until you can tell yourself that, having someone else help you can make all the difference.
Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.
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