Working Smarter

Why Talking to Yourself Isn't Crazy But a Very Smart Tool to Cut Stress and Manage Your Mind

Posted by Joe Robinson

Guy Talking to himself.jpg

It used to be that talking to yourself was a sign that perhaps a chat with a health professional was in order. Today, when the guy in the cereal aisle is carrying on a conversation about Cinnamon Toast Crunch all by himself, there is no longer any worry about mental faculties. He’s obviously got an earpiece and is double-checking by phone with the supply chief at home to make sure he doesn’t make someone very unhappy with his choice. Cereal can be very personal.

There’s a new respectability to verbalizing out loud without a soul around, and there should be. It turns out that bringing thoughts from the head into the world of experience is a powerful tool to help humans focus, remember, keep anxiety at bay, and self-regulate. If you are not talking to yourself out loud, you are missing out on a force that can overcome the biggest obstacle to healthy functioning: the thoughts in our own brains.


There is a lot of flotsam and jetsam washing in and out of our minds every day. Using key phrases out loud can override the noise and cue us to what we need to be emphasizing, prioritizing, or focusing on amid all the interior babble.

Researchers have found, for instance, that if you need to pay attention to something, you can get neurons to perk up and do just that by telling yourself out loud that you’re going to focus on a task like a laser. That command breaks through chaos and prompts increased attention.

Peter Gollwitzer at New York University has shown the power of stating your intentions out loud to strengthen prospective memory and prime the brain to replace a bad habit with a good one. Gollwitzer is creator of the implementation intention, one of the best devices to both remember something you have to do and get rid of a habit you don’t want. The technique is based on stating a future intention in an if-then statement. “If I see chocolate cake, then I’m going to avoid it.” Saying the if-then phrase out loud a couple of times builds a habit that counters the impulse of immediately scarfing down the cake next time you see it.

The implementation intention is an awesome weapon to help reduce stress, guilt, time frenzy, and a host of other autopilot habits that self-inflict dramas in our life. Yet it wouldn’t have nearly the encoding power on brain neurons if you just kept it to yourself and didn’t state it out loud. The goal gets lost in the thought factory; the commitment isn’t so resolute without the verbalization.


I’m a big believer in using the spoken word to counter ruminative thought and buoy motivation. It’s something we use strategically in my work-life balance and stress management programs to cut off emotional reactions at the pass and build better attention.

Speaking out loud to yourself works on several levels. It’s great as an instructional tool, helping you focus on how to do a new task as you’re doing it. “Step forward and pivot 180 degrees,” helps you concentrate and make the dance move. “Make sure the shelf is facing the right direction” prevents the IKEA misadventure.

Spoken strategic phrases also serve as motivational cues to help keep eyes on the prize. A study that measured the impact of out-loud self-talk showed that basketball players who used motivational phrases increased skills that involved speed. Instructional phrases improved skills that required accuracy and timing.

Another area that spoken phrases are very effective at is managing stress. Catching yourself with a loud “Stop!” as you slam a table can shut down the rumination factory of catastrophic thoughts and awfulizing. Phrases such as “Move on!” and “Don’t react” are also good at extracting us from the entrainment of negative thinking.


It’s not just what we say to ourselves, but how we say it that can calm a boiling mind. A fascinating study led by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan found that verbal self-talk can provide psychological distance from ourselves and emotions stirred up by the egocentric brain. When we frame our actions more objectively under social stress by referring to ourselves in the second- or third-person, instead of the usual first-person, we increase self-regulation over our thoughts and anxieties 

“Psychological distancing strategies enhance people’s capacity to exert self-control when faced with tempting options in the short term,” Kross and colleagues write. In the study, they found that non-first person pronouns and using your own name, as pro athletes often do in interviews, creates more neutral thoughts and behavior under social stress.

If I was to say, “Joe Robinson can handle this meeting” out loud or “You can get that big project started,” I would be framing an impending stressful event more as a challenge than a threat, the signal of something beyond coping capacity that turns on the stress response.

Emotional distancing is key to almost all stress reduction techniques. The idea is to view a stressful scenario as a friend or lawyer for yourself would—detached or non-personally. Taking things personally is the default reaction when emotional reactions go off, and that keeps them going. We have to turn off the personalization to be able to turn down the emotions and bring back our 21st century analytical brain, which gets hijacked by the ancient emotional brain in a threatening moment.

When we bring thoughts into experience by uttering them, they achieve more weight. We take the thought, action, and us more seriously. The same goes for limiting things we might say about ourselves to ourselves or to others—such as “I can’t handle this,” “I’m overwhelmed,” or “these things always happen to me.” We box ourselves in to the stress response and pessimism with language like that, whereas statements that frame a positive intention can provide a healthy path forward.

It makes sense that talking out loud should work, since that’s the way we win any argument with somebody else. You don’t persuade through mind-reading but through the use of oral language. The sound of the voice makes it real.

Thoughts aren’t real, only experience is. Talk to yourself, and you cut through the clamor of internal self-talk to focus on the motivating words or the self-distancing phrase that can help you make the right choice under pressure. Like in that cereal aisle. Say it three times: "Cinnamon Toast Crunch," and you won't forget.

If you would like to learn more about how our work-life balance and stress management employee trainings can help you and your team manage demands and be more self-motivating, click the button below for details on one of our programs.

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Tags: employee stress management, self-talk, managing the mind, talking to yourself, self-motivation, stress reduction techniques

The Most Important Stress Management Weapon We Don't Know We Need

Posted by Joe Robinson

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The surprising thing about stress is that it's not caused by anyone or anything else. The danger signal that trips the stress response is triggered, not by external events, but by what you think about those events. I hate to tell you this, but it’s the story you tell yourself about a stressful event, that activates stress. And that's very good news, because that means you can change the story and shut off the stress.


It certainly doesn't feel like good news when stress erupts. That's because the story set off by stress is a highly catastrophic one. The ancient part of the brain that trips the stress response thinks you are about to die that second. As a result, it feeds the brain with an extreme thought, a false belief that immediately jumps to worst-case-scenario thinking and ruminating about dire outcomes.

The pattern is autopilot, unless we stop the emotional reaction by bringing back the 21st-century brain and the right way to frame negative events. How long we stay trapped in emotional awfulizing and rumination depends on a style of self-talk known as “explanatory style,” how we explain why bad things that happen to us. 

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Explanatory style is a concept that isn’t hard to grasp. I see the light bulbs go on right away in participants in my stress management programs. Our thoughts are the problem, not what anyone else is doing to us. Manage the thoughts set off by the default stress reaction, and you control the demands, instead of the other way around. Turn off the danger signal, and the stress response stops in four minutes.


When a threat overloads capacity to cope with it, whether it’s an argument with a colleague or 300 emails, it activates ancient survival equipment in the brain's defense hub, the amygdala, which hijacks the modern brain and turns over command to a stowaway from the year 100,000 BC. The so-called caveman/woman brain then locks in irrational emotions and the thoughts they unleash, driven by the false belief of imminent demise.

That triggers dire and pessimistic self-talk—“I can’t handle it,” “I’m going to lose my job and be out on the street.” Pessimistic explanatory style entrenches the false belief that the sky is falling or that nothing will ever work out. We buy the catastrophic story because it’s in our heads—it has to be true! No, they are mere thoughts, and thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is real.

There is another explanation for what happened other than the black-and-white, all-or-nothing frame of pessimistic explanatory style. Optimistic explanatory style reframes the reaction by bringing back the rational 21st century brain. Something simply didn’t work out. A mistake was made, and it’s survivable. You’ll do better next time. It’s hard, but you can cope.


Explanatory style isn’t just key to controlling stress. Researchers who tracked the health of a group of Harvard students from college through their sixties (Peterson, Seligman, Vaillant) were able to show that a pessimistic explanatory style is a serious risk factor for poor health in midlife and late adulthood. The way we interpret why things happen to us can literally make us sick, set off major health conditions, and shorten our lives.

The reason is that the stress response was only designed to be active for a short period of time, since it does serious damage to our bodies in longer doses.

It suppresses the immune system, shuts down the digestive and tissue repair systems, sends blood pressure skyrocketing, and increases the bad cholesterol while decreasing the good kind. All this is intended to harness the body's strength and push blood to the arms and legs to help us fight or run during the brief time we are in harm's way.

This is why chronic stress that goes on day after day, week after week, sometimes year after year, is a factor in the leading causes of death and why it leads to absenteeism and presenteeism. Stress ravages bodies, brains, and productivity. It constricts brains to the perceived emergency, so the chief productivity tool, attention, goes missing in rumination.

It’s no wonder, then, that programs that teach people how to control stress with an optimistic explanatory style have an immediate impact on health and performance. Stress management training programs, for instance, have been shown to increase company revenues 23% and cut absenteeism 24% (Munz, Kohler, Greenberg). 


The right explanatory style can make all the difference for an under- pressure organization, team or personal life. The pessimistic style sees negative events as permanent, pervasive (affecting every aspect of life), and personal. It can lead to what the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman identified as “learned helplessness,” a belief that there’s nothing that can be done.

That fuels pessimistic self-talk and terms that lock you in to the darkness—things “always” turn out bad, you’ll “never” make it. Seligman discovered that pessimistic explanatory style is a road that leads to depression.

Optimistic explanatory style reverses the negative self-talk with terms that reframe the situation from permanent to temporary. It’s a passing storm, like all storms. It’s not pervasive but specific to a certain situation. Therefore, it’s not going to affect everything you do for the rest of your life. And you don’t take the event personally. That takes the ego out of the equation and the emotions that gush irrationally from it.

The optimistic style brings back the analytical brain hijacked by the primitive emotional brain residing in the ancient limbic system. You can start to weigh pro and con again. The sky is no longer falling.

The power to manage stress is within us all when we shut down the false story of stress and reframe it with the right explanatory style. This skill can transform lives and workplaces. Without an understanding of how to frame pressure, pace, and workload, the default is to the reflex catastrophic story. With the right self-talk, you can manage any challenge. 

Stress management training can put your team on the path to effective performance. If you are interested in a program for your organization, click the button below for details on pricing and content. Reframe the overwhelm game.

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Tags: awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, stress management training, stress management trainer, stress, stress management, stress management programs, explanatory style, self-talk

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