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Why Am I Talking to Myself? The Skill You Need to Learn to Fight Anxiety and Depression

Case Studies

By Jaclyn Rink

MSCP, Limited Licensed Psychologist

People tend to think they need help from a mental health professional the moment they catch themselves having conversations in their own head.

A little bit of friendly banter with yourself at night, talking yourself through some problem solving or decision making, usually no big deal! But then a moment of realization happens; you are under intense stress, feeling emotionally overwhelmed, physically drained and like a lightbulb, you register what you’re doing. “I’m talking to myself. Great. I must be going crazy”. Enter; a frantic call to McCaskill Family Services. 
And why wouldn’t we feel this way? Hollywood always hallmarks this moment as the tipping point of when family members decide to stage an intervention for the seemingly “crazy” uncle who admits that he often talks to himself when he is lonely or afraid. It’s not unlikely for us to see someone muttering to themselves and pass a bit of judgement, “Yikes! That person needs some help.”

Would you believe me if I told you that you aren’t crazy for talking to yourself? Would you doubt evidence-based research that suggests that self-talk is actually healthy!? Sure, we’ve all heard that a feel-good-pep-talk morning affirmation can cause us to feel more confident and ready to take on the day, but third-person self-talk is so much more than this! Positive self-talk is not just seeing the world through rose colored glasses, but about recognizing the truth in a brain that is bogged down by its automatic urge to see things in an inaccurate, emotionally charged way. You are not alone; these negative thinking patterns develop in many of us and are due to a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors such as interpersonal interactions, life experiences and interpretations of these events. The goal of positive self-talk is to intentionally “overwrite” these cognitive processes that so often become chronic, and lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety and anger. 

Neuropsychological research conducted at University of Michigan and Michigan State University provides evidence for the effectiveness of third person self-talk. Using third person pronouns, such as your name, he, she, or you, helps the brain to register thoughts as if you were thinking about someone else. When we approach our behaviors and thoughts from an outsider’s perspective, we allow for a small amount of psychological distance between ourselves and our emotions, therefore increasing our emotional regulation by upping our logical thought processes and facilitating greater self-control. This research found that a person’s emotional distress began to decrease within 1 second of referring to themselves in the third person. Talk about instant gratification! 

Third person self-talk is skill that takes awareness, practice and repetition. (However, lucky for us, these experiments proved that this takes very minimal cognitive effort!). Simply put, you have to think about thinking, become aware of your automatic thought processes, and figure out how to turn them into more positive statements that are truly meaningful for you. Let’s say for example you are anxious about someone breaking into your home. If you are standing in your dark house all alone and you say to yourself, “Jane, you are safe” this should begin to provide some relief.  But…here’s the fine print: If you don’t believe it, you won’t feel it. In other words, don’t lie to yourself. Saying something as general as “Everything is going to be all right”, will not provide a whole lot of comfort when the floor creaks and the dog starts barking, and it sure doesn’t feel like everything is going to be alright! Instead try a highly specific, logic-based statement that challenges your original automatic thought “Jane, you have working alarms on all of your doors,” “Jane, there has never been a break-in in your neighborhood,” “Jane, remember when you took those karate classes? You’ve got some solid self-defense skills!”

Repeating these thoughts to yourself when you are feeling overly emotional will help to balance out your intense feelings with logic, making your thoughts increasingly rational and your body physiologically calm. I encourage many of my patients who are new to this skill to practice, practice, practice! Automatic thought processes are called that for a reason, they are instantaneous, and they are sticky! It’s also in the moments of high stress or emotional arousal that we are less able to think clearly and apply newly learned skills (be sure to consult with a professional if you are having a particularly difficult time, or if other symptoms start to arise).  However, the more we practice, the more automatic this process becomes and the less we have to think about it. The more we practice, the better we get at making statements that are situation-specific and intensely meaningful. So, next time you see your co-worker mouthing something to themselves before a big presentation, offer them a bit of support; next time you catch yourself talking to your reflection, pat yourself on the back. You are just the opposite of your crazy uncle, you are doing just fine. 

If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression that do not seem to respond to positive self-talk, there are many more strategies that we can teach you that are highly effective.  I specialize in working with people of all ages who are struggling with anxiety and depression and I would be happy to meet with you to discuss your personal situation. 

Jaclyn Rink; Limited Licensed Psychologist
McCaskill Family Services

Jason S. Moser, Adrienne Dougherty, Whitney I. Mattson, Benjamin Katz, Tim P. Moran, Darwin Guevarra, Holly Shablack, Ozlem Ayduk, John Jonides, Marc G. Berman, Ethan Kross. "Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI."Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-04047-3