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The stress of negative self-talk

There is a constant traveling companion who goes with us everywhere we go. Never leaves our side. Never seems to take a break. Anytime we do something, don’t do something, say something, fail to say something, our traveling companion utters a comment, blurts out a remark, passes judgment on what just happened to us. These comments are whispered directly into our brains, are not heard by anyone else, and come through sometimes subtly, sometimes very loud and clear.

To those of us who are lucky to have had a positive development of our self-esteem, this inseparable traveling companion utters encouraging, fair, balanced, and generally positive comments to our words and actions. Able to discern between a genuine mistake, a shortcoming, and a learning opportunity, our traveling companion offers helpful and positive feedback, helps us recover quickly from upsets and disappointments, and helps us deal effectively with traumatic events. Our traveling companion helps us become and remain better, happier people.

To those of us who had a difficult, traumatic childhood, or have had a series of stressful events in our adolescence or adult life, the traveling companion is a constant source of disparaging, unfair, biased, and generally negative comments about our words and actions. Unable to distinguish between our situational and systemic shortcomings, innocent mistakes, and skill deficits, our traveling companion unleashes a barrage of put-downs, decreasing our ability to face life’s challenges, forcing us to take extreme measures to shut it up (alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs), and does nothing but add to our misery. Our traveling companion can literally undermine, sabotage and bring more ruin to our life.

Interestingly, few of us are aware that the traveling companions exists. The voice we hear in our brains becomes so familiar, so constant, so automatic, that we fail to consciously register its message, fail to really “hear it” except within our subconscious. Even when we become aware of this voice, we often accept it (or endure it) as a given, something we cannot control, something that goes with us naturally, unavoidably, and permanently.

The traveling companion I am talking about is more commonly known by the name of self-talk. Lucky are those whose self-talk is generally positive. For the rest of us, whose self-talk is generally negative, life is a struggle fought with one or both hands tied behind our backs. Stress is our constant companion. Anxiety ambushes us at every opportunity. The world becomes an inherently dangerous place, people are not to be trusted, catastrophe is just around the corner. Often, alcohol (pot or a Xanax or an oxy) helps shut down the negative self-talk, at least for a few hours. Once the effects of the chemical wear out, it’s back, often stronger and louder than before.

What can be done by those unlucky souls who are stuck with negative self-talk as a traveling companion? The three-step approach of cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating this condition and eliminating its deleterious effects. The 3-step approach requires the help of a counselor, especially when the intensity, frequency, and impact of the negative self-talk is affecting our ability to function and increasing our distress to the point of self-medication. The 3 steps are:

1. AWARENESS, which begins with the acknowledgment and acceptance of the negative self-talk existence, facilitates our ability to actually and consciously “listen” to it, and permits us to identify the times and situations when we are most likely to hear it. This is the most important step. This is not yet a fix, it is an essential identification of the problem.

2. SKILL, in developing alternative options through which to see the events and situations that are happening to us, whereby the explanation offered by our negative self-talk is only one of the possibilities, and not the only one. When our negative self-talk suggests a catastrophic outcome, we have the skill necessary to work up alternative, more positive outcomes.

2. COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING, which leads to a transformation of the negative self-talk in either a positive self-talk or, at least, a more neutral and balanced self-talk. This last step requires time and sustained effort, to counter what is perhaps a lifetime of negative self-talk and turn it into a new, habitual, and permanent way of thinking.