The Single Best Mental Health Trick You're Not Doing That Works Wonders
Experts explain how talking to yourself—in a kind, compassionate way—can help you cope in quarantine.
The unprecedented way in which the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted modern life has led to a near-global mental health crisis. Isolation, job loss, health fears, and other worries are taking their toll. Fortunately, in 2020, this is a problem that can be publicly acknowledged and discussed. While stigmas about mental illness still persist, it's difficult for anyone to argue that circumstances like these aren't ravaging people's thoughts and emotions. And with that openness comes some helpful, easy-to-implement advice. You may even be following one particular tip without knowing it. Believe it or not, if you're in quarantine alone (or not!), talking to yourself might give your mental health a significant boost.
Talking to yourself kindly, that is. If you're someone who has a tendency to speak to yourself out loud, you may find yourself questioning or berating your actions. Talking to yourself in a critical way can have a detrimental effect, making you feel even more dejected and worthless—if you don't balance that language with positive observations, that is.
"There is no inherent damage to you recognizing weaknesses or inadequacies," says Hans Watson, DO, psychiatrist and founder of University Elite. "There's only damage if then you don't recognize the things you also do well."
Conversely, praising and soothing yourself can have a positive effect. Talking to yourself about what's happening around you can even help you process it. This is especially useful during a pandemic.
"Speak to yourself either softly or kindly in a particular way about that struggle," Toni Bernhard, author of How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, told CNN. "This is the hardest thing many of us have ever gone through. Be kind to yourself over how hard this is."
Speaking to Best Life, Carla Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend, says that the benefits of being kind to yourself are compounding.
"The more developed the compassionate, thoughtful voice becomes, the more positive and balanced the individual feels," she explains "Neurobiologically, this makes perfect sense. Whatever we routinely think—be it compassionate or critical—is hardwired into the brain. As well, a compassionate inner monologue can increase the level of feel-good neurochemicals (e.g. serotonin) and decrease stress hormones (e.g. cortisol and adrenaline)."
You may feel right now that there are few opportunities to be productive or to really impress yourself. So if you do the dishes right after dinner like you've been meaning to or finish a long novel, take a moment to celebrate that.
"Anytime we recognize we do something well, it actually stimulates the part of the frontal lobe that allows us to have motivation to do even more good things," Watson says. "You get the dopamine release … You become addicted to succeeding once you recognize the positives."
Have you found it difficult to even the scales of positive and negative self-talk? You're not alone, and there is a middle step. According to Fran Walfish, PsyD, Beverly Hills and NYC-based family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, "It's nearly impossible to go from harshly self-critical to super positive" in your monologue to yourself.
"The first goal is to become a benign self-observer," she advises. Whenever you feel that you're putting yourself down, you should simply be aware of it. "'There I go again, thinking critical thoughts!' That's all. Don't try to change anything. Just observe without judgment."
And working on how you talk to yourself is well worth the effort in the long run, not just in this particular period of stress. You can't rely solely on outside praise and approval.
"You have to do it for yourself," Watson says, "because true self-esteem is actually letting yourself acknowledge what you do right and do wrong and knowing that, in spite of your flaws, there's so much good about you that you're still worth it." And for more information that can help you cope, check out 25 Dangerous Myths About Your Mental Health You Need to Stop Believing.