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A Mental Tune up for 2010

It has been a joke and a common sense notion that people who talk to themselves are kind of nutty.  However, psychology is recognizing more and more that we all talk to ourselves constantly.  There is even a name for it, the “internal dialogue”. It is like we have different voices in our heads, typically learned from our environment or our childhoods.  Depending upon what we are saying to ourselves in our heads, the expectations we have, the way we interpret things, and the pictures we create in our minds, that determines how we feel and how we react.

Lets use depression as an example, as the role of the internal dialogue in depression has been studied extensively.  When something bad happens to a depression prone person, they say things to themselves like, “I’ve messed up again.  I always goof up.  Things are never going to get any better”.  When a bad thing occurs with a basically happy person, they have thoughts like, “This is an isolated incident.  I’ll do better next time.  What can I learn from this to improve?”

Particular thinking distortions are also found with anxiety.  Overly stressed and anxious people tend to expect the worst and to create catastrophes in their minds.  For example, imagine an anxious person going to a party where they don’t know anyone there.  As they’re getting ready to go they are saying to themselves, “Oh my God.  I won’t know anyone there.  I’ll probably end up in a corner all by myself.  If I try to talk to someone, I’ll be so nervous, I’ll trip all over my words.  If I join a group of people, they’ll stare at me and think I’m am intruder.  This will be terrible”.  What kind of experience will they have?

Now imagine another person going to the same party who also doesn’t know anyone there.  They are saying to themselves, “I’m going to this party and I don’t know anybody there.  That can be uncomfortable, but I can deal with it.  I’ll stand there quietly for a bit and get a feel for what’s going on.  There will be other people there by themselves, and they will really appreciate it if I go up and talk to them.  If and when I join a group of people, I’ll say something if I have something to offer.  Who knows, I might make a new friend or learn something new.  What a wonderful opportunity”.  They will probably have a very different experience.

It is hard to change our thinking patterns because we have been saying the same things to ourselves for so long.  However, techniques have been developed to modify them.  Here are two.  Next time you are having a distressing feeling, ask yourself. “ What is the thought in my mind”, “How am I interpreting this situation” or “What picture am I creating in my mind”. Then come up with alternate possibilities.   For example, if someone doesn’t seem very interested in us, we might tell ourselves, “They don’t like me” or “Everyone thinks I’m a jerk”.  Alternate possibilities might be that the other person is not feeling well, or they just had a fight with their spouse.  The alternate interpretations are often more likely to be true.  It can be especially helpful to write the whole process down.

The second technique is to write down three things each day that for which we are thankful.  We will be more calm and happy if we live with an “attitude of gratitude“.  Life is easier and more pleasant if we can have the psychological stance “I have everything I need to be happy, and I am grateful”.

Randall Colker, Ph.D.