The science behind the role self-talk plays in the lives of students


Legs bouncing and heart pounding — you sit at your desk and chew on the end of your pencil. You glance over at your test one more time before you hand it in. Immediately, you begin to internally criticize yourself and wonder what you could have done better. For the rest of the day, you anxiously await the time you receive your grade. 

This emotionally draining scenario is familiar to a majority of high school students across the globe, including Monta Vista senior Yolanna Lu. “I feel like automatically, I resort to my negative thoughts, like everyone probably would immediately,” she said. “We’re always combating the immediate reaction of being degrading.”  

The impulse to immediately address yourself with negativity when expectations aren’t met is incredibly natural. In fact, according to Michigan State University’s Stress Less with Mindfulness program, an individual has 80,000 thoughts a day, 80% of which are negative. 

These pessimistic thoughts have a vast effect on both emotional and physical health. Since the field of psychology was established, researchers have found that negative attitudes generate chronic stress, disrupting the body’s hormone balance, reducing vital chemicals in the brain required for happiness, and damaging the immune system. 

One of the key factors that determines the attitude a person chooses to adopt is their self-talk, or the internal dialogue they choose to address themselves with. 

This can be explained through the complex Relational Frame Theory (RFT) developed by Dr. Steven Hayes. At its core, RFT argues that human language is predicated on the idea of relating one concept to another. Humans and animals alike have been proven to formulate connections between a neutral event to an important event. For example, the ringing of a bell (neutral event) may be associated with the idea of receiving food (important event.) In a similar manner, humans are also remarkably capable of comparing contrasting words and meanings across relational networks. This idea also applies to internal language.

 For instance, sophomore Anya Goyal’s experience with self deprecating jokes led her to develop an unhealthy mindset towards herself. She began to make an association between certain phrases and self perception, which led to concrete effects on her emotional and physical health. 

“After I would essentially make fun of myself over and over, I would start to believe the things I was saying even if I knew they weren’t true earlier,” Goyal said. “It would negatively affect my overall perception of myself and confidence.” 

Relational frame theory further attests that language patterns that are associated with suffering can be changed and eliminated given that individuals actively train their brain to do so. 

The main way to use self talk is to do exactly that — train your mind to obstruct negativity. While this undoubtedly appears to be an intimidating task, school based therapist Richard Prinz asserts that students gain the most benefit out of positive self talk by viewing it as an achievable goal. “Try not to see it as a daunting task. You’re not gonna put any effort into it if it’s daunting or impossible,” Prinz said. “Think about the benefits–then you can say that it’s worth the effort. Start with some motivation so you actually do some work on it.” 

Through minor changes, major positive results can be achieved. These minor changes include prioritizing yourself and taking time to address what you need when considering a stressful situation. Replacing extreme words such as “never” and “can’t” with their positive counterparts is also useful in utilizing RFT to improve self talk. 

The action of actively choosing to engage in positive self talk proves to be helpful to the Monta Vista community. Sophomore Raaga Karumanchi says “… if you promote self confidence and positivity, it’s easier to overcome challenges.” Additionally, Yolanna Lu recognizes how it positively affects her grades as she says “if you have negative self talk, you feel less motivated, less productive, that translates to your grades.”

Evidently, positive self talk is something everyone can do that has many advantages. As we continue to grow as students, we can learn to use our thoughts to our benefit, erase the negativity, and become positive people.

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