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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Inner Speech

Q. I am wondering how self-talk, or inner speech operates while someone is going through a crisis or life change... like how and why someone's self-talk may get "off" in a crisis. Also, how it may get "off" in a life change. How can someone recognize and change the negative self-talk in these situations to become more positive and affirming?

A. The nature of self-talk or internalized cognitions forms the very basis of cognitive-behavioral approaches to mental disorders, as you probably know. For a review of the empirical data showing that changing these internalized cognitions is associated with change in psychological symptoms, you may want to see the chapter by Aaron Beck and John Rush in the book, "Cognitive Defects in Development of Mental Illness", edited by G. Serban (Brunner/Mazel, 1978). Also see the book "Cognitive Therapy for Depressed Adolescents", edited by TCR Wilkes et al (Guilford Press, 1994).

More recently, Garber et al (Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Feb. 1993, pp. 47-57) found that negative cognitions were associated with self-reports of both depressive and anxious symptoms in adolescents. Similarly, Peden et al (Nursing Research, July-August 2000, pp. 201-07) found that negative thinking mediates the effect of self-esteem on depressive symptoms in college women. This study used direct measures of internalized cognitions, including the Crandell Cognitions Inventory and the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire.

With regard to your specific question: there are few studies looking at changes in self-talk during personal crises or life changes, from what I could find in the literature. However, a paper by Printz et al (Adolescence, Winter, 1999, pp. 715-34) examined stress-buffering factors related to adolescent coping, and found that the effects of stressful events were mediated, in part, by the problem solving strategies of the subjects.

This would certainly overlap with subjects' internalized cognitions. (Social support was also an important factor). In terms of how someone can recognize and change negative self-talk, the two books I highly recommend are "Feeling Good", by Dr. David Burns; and "A Guide to Rational Living", by Albert Ellis and Robert Harper. Both provide excellent self-help guidance on how to think straight.

March 2001

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