Neuropsychologist: 4 tips to stop the cycle of negative self-talk—your ‘thoughts are not the absolute truth'

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Negative self-talk, or the experience of your inner monologue being hyper-critical, can erode your confidence. And, usually, whatever you're worried about doesn't actually come to pass, says Judy Ho, a neuropsychologist and professor at Pepperdine University.

In 2019, researchers at Penn State University had 29 people with generalized anxiety disorder write down what they were worried about for 10 days and tracked the outcomes for the next month. Most of their worries didn't materialize. In fact, 91.4% of worry predictions did not come true.

In her recent TED Talk, Ho describes how negative self-talk can undermine your goals.

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"Sometimes we think that negative self-talk helps us to be motivated," Ho told CNBC Make It. "So, we beat ourselves up in our head thinking, 'Oh, this is going to motivate me.' But, actually, we just end up fulfilling a self-fulfilling prophecy."

To defeat the cycle of negative self-talk, you have to be mindful of what triggers your pessimism and how to distance yourself from anxiety-driven thoughts.

1. Identify what triggers you.

Pinpoint what experiences cause you to ruminate. Maybe it's meetings at work or large parties where you don't know anyone.

"Just notice where those patterns are, and what situations trigger you and you're going to start finding a theme," Ho says.

2. Question your thoughts.

Once you find out which scenarios inspire the most self-criticism you can start investigating if there is any merit to these thoughts.

"Know that thoughts are not the absolute truth," Ho says. "There's no way that you have tens of thousands of thoughts and that they're all true."

Ask yourself what evidence supports this thought, and what evidence contradicts it.

"Evidence isn't just more thoughts," Ho says. "Evidence is things that somebody else who was in the same room could actually observe."

Write down your findings in two columns and compare them. Oftentimes, Ho says, there is more evidence that your anxiety won't come to fruition than evidence that it will.

3. 'Yes ... but ... '

Practice a more balanced thought process. Ho offers the following formula:

"Yes I [insert something that is not going well], but I [insert something that is going well]."

Maybe you're worried about how much work you have to get done tomorrow and feel like you weren't as productive as you should have been today. Instead of replaying criticism of your work ethic in your head, tell yourself: "Yes, I didn't get as much done today as I'd like, but I did finish the top three items on my to-do list."

4. Label your feeling as a 'thought.'

"When we think something, our brains are naturally inclined to believe that it's automatically true," Ho says. "So whether we're imagining a catastrophic future, or going back to the past to a terrible memory, or maybe a mistake that we made, self-talk, essentially, takes us right to that moment in time, as if it's happening right in front of us."

Create some distance between you and your self-talk by labeling your thoughts as what they are: just thoughts.

"It changes the relation to the thought because you're basically saying, 'I'm just having the thought and it doesn't have to be true,'" Ho says. "It distances yourself from that thought instead of it automatically becoming part of your reality."

Being critical of the stories you tell yourself can help you end a cycle of negativity and focus on accomplishing your goals.

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