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A New Twist on Anxiety-Reducing Self-Talk

If you are anything like the majority of us, then my guess is that when it’s important for you to make a positive or favorable impression in an upcoming social situation, then you likely experience some level of anxiety or stress. This can be especially true for you if you struggle with higher levels of anxiety in general or find it difficult to calm yourself when faced with stress. The social situations that may cause you to worry could be anything from meeting new people, arriving for a job interview, visiting family, or needing to give the dreaded public speech or toast.

If you have read anything about stress management or information on the various coping techniques that have been developed, then I’m sure you have heard about the benefits of positive self-talk and how “what” we say to ourselves can either help calm ourselves down or stress ourselves out more.

If you do use positive self-talk, then my guess is that your positive self-talk generally sounds something like this:

“I can do this. I will be okay. It won’t be that bad. Just breathe slow.”

Now, I still believe that this positive self-talk is highly beneficial and that we should continue to use this type of talk to manage stress or anxiety (it is certainly way better than the inner self-critic talk that many of us fall prey too), however, I have recently come across some new research that has put an interesting twist on self-talk. It’s this new twist I am beginning to experiment with myself and with the clients that I work with, and which I would like to share with you.

The twist? Using non-first-person pronouns when speaking to yourself.

Yup, instead of saying “I will do just fine…,” this new twist in self-talk would have you saying:

“Samantha, you will do just fine. You know you are prepared to do this.”

According to this recent research1, people using non-first-person pronouns were able to regulate their stress around making a positive or favorable first impressions better than people who used self-talk that way many of us normally do (i.e., using first pronoun self-talk such as “I will be ok”).

According to the researchers, this is because it enhances self-distancing, which can help you to take a step back from the situation, experience it less personally and less intensely, and be able to take a more reasoned and balanced perspective. Helping people engage in self-distancing strategies (i.e., journaling using the third person pronoun) has also been used to treat depression, rumination, generalized anxiety, and to cope with overwhelming emotions.

Another way of saying this is self-distancing can help you to “have” the emotion, rather than “be” the emotion. It lets you look at what is happening for you more objectively and helps prevent you from getting lost in the emotional chaos you may be feeling.

This recent research also found that once the stressful situation was over, the people using the non-first-person pronoun strategy were less likely to fall prey to negative evaluations of how they did or how the situation went. Furthermore, these people were also more likely to perceive future anxiety-provoking or stressful situations as challenges rather than threats.

So to recap, using non-first-person pronouns has shown to help people manage their stress or anxiety during an event, to gain some distance from the situation and to take a more balanced perspective, to help them process the stressful situation more adaptively, and finally, to help them view future situations as challenges rather than threats.

What does all this really tell us in the end? That HOW we talk to ourselves, that the words we choose to use when thinking, and speaking, really do have an impact on how we perceive things. Our language and choice of words really do shape how we experience all the situations we face. If we are facing a tough time, the way we think about it or talk about it will either make it harder for ourselves or make us more able to recognise the hardship we are facing while still maintaining our ability to face it….as a challenge rather than a threat.

As Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are right!”

1Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 106(2), Feb 2014, 304-324. doi: 10.1037/a0035173. Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Kross, Ethan; Bruehlman-Senecal, Emma; Park, Jiyoung; Burson, Aleah; Dougherty, Adrienne; Shablack, Holly; Bremner, Ryan; Moser, Jason; Ayduk, Ozlem