The power behind “I can do this” – Part Two

So tell us, how was your week of positive self-statements? Did you notice a difference? Did you perform better during the day, or notice being in a better mood? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear about your experience with self-talk! Now, let’s delve a bit deeper.

As seen in our previous blog post, negative self-talk and positive self-talk can have tremendous effects on mindset, mood, well-being, and even performance. However, which has the biggest effect? Reducing negative self-statements or increasing positive self-statements? Which will you need to be more mindful of?

On one hand, there is evidence suggesting that a reduction in negative thinking might have more effect on mood than an increase in positive thinking. For example, Kendall et al. (1991) investigated the “power of non-negative thinking”, and the reduction of negative thinking as being an important component of anxiety reduction in children. If that is the case, perhaps your mindfulness practice can focus on noticing your negative self-statements, and restructuring them into positive self-statements, similar to the examples in our previous post. On the other hand, some evidence suggests that both have a similar effect on mood and well-being. For example, one study by Clore and Gaynor (2006) shows that both restructuring negative self-thoughts and enhancing positive self-statements are equally associated with clinically significant improvement in low self-esteem and depressive symptoms in undergraduate students. All in all, it is important to keep in mind that it might not be enough to add positive self-statements to our self-talk; indeed, taking the time to notice and reformulate negative self-statements in order to reduce their negativity might be just as crucial to our mental health and well-being. 

Furthermore, there is the question of the chicken and the egg. Which comes first? The change in self-talk or the change in mood? There is most likely an interaction between both, allowing incremental and parallel changes in both self-talk and mood. However, one study by Hogendoorn et al. (2013) investigated whether a change in negative and positive thoughts (as well as other mediators) preceded a change in anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents with anxiety disorder receiving cognitive behavioural therapy. They found that during treatment, an increase of positive thoughts preceded a decrease in child-reported anxiety symptoms! This study suggests that a positive change in self-talk might be the one to lead a positive change in mood and well-being. So, even on gloomy days, if you try to maintain positive inner speech, with kind self-statements and language, you’ll likely feel it improve your mood!

It is also  important to consider that, as language comes in different forms, body language and facial expressions can also affect how we feel. A recent meta-analysis performed by Coles et al. (2019) examined 138 studies that manipulated facial feedback and evaluated emotion. Results showed that facial expressions can indeed have a small impact on our emotions. For example, smiling can make you feel happier, and frowning can make you feel sadder. However, there is still a lot of conflicting evidence about how body language like “power posing” (adopting stances that are associated with confidence) can affect your own confidence and self-esteem. In the meantime, we do know that it can never hurt to try a smile when you feel down!

Lastly, self-talk and language can be used in psychotherapy to help individuals deal with their mental illnesses. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) operationalizes exactly this as it forces us to examine  the language that we use with ourselves and the thoughts that we have. It allows one to become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking, in order to reframe thoughts and change one’s perception of a situation. In other words, it can be used to evaluate and change our inner script and the language we use with ourselves to achieve better outcomes in mental health. One example is a meta-analysis written by Spinhoven et al. (2018), looking at the effects of cognitive behavioural therapy for depression on Repetitive Negative Thinking (RNT), or rumination (“repetitively focusing on the fact that one is depressed; on one’s symptoms of depression; on the causes, meanings, and consequences of depressive symptoms”). This systematic review found that RNT-focused CBT has a significant effect on decreasing RNT. Furthermore, the effects on RNT were strongly associated with the effects on depression severity. What can be understood from this is that psychotherapy focusing on the reduction of negative thoughts and repetitive negative self-talk can lead to significant improvement in mental illnesses such as depression. Psychotherapy focusing on the shift of negative inner speech to positive language is increasingly common and helpful to many.

I think it’s now pretty clear that the way we talk to ourselves and the language we use in our inner dialogue can have strong effects on our mood and mental well-being. Even our body language can influence how we feel! Restructuring negative self-statements and using positive self-statements can be used to increase our own mental health and well-being as well as our patients’ well-being through psychotherapy. 

So, remember to be mindful of how you talk to yourself! Be kind, be positive, and remember, you CAN do this.

This article was written by Lea Sultanem, a third year medical student at McGill University and a member of the McGill Med Mindfulness team.

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