Tools: Self-talk techniques for reducing stress

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Self-talk and stressIdentifying your stress-inducing self-talkThought record for reframing negative thoughtsWays to acceptStress Inoculation Procedure

How self-talk affects stress

Our internal dialogues or ‘self-talk’ direct our thoughts and behaviours. Becoming aware of your self-talk and how it affects you is the first step to rewriting or reframing dialogues that cause you stress.

Positive or negative?

Self-talk is like a self-fulfilling prophecy, that is, if you think about something long enough, you can actually make it come true! So, when your self-talk is positive (e.g., “I can get a good mark on the midterm”), you give yourself permission to be successful. Conversely, negative self-talk (e.g., “I’m bad at math”) can turn into you giving up on yourself and your chances of success.

Thoughts and behaviours

Self-talk can direct your thoughts and behaviours. For example, if you say “I can learn these problems to pass the physics test,” you‘ll be more willing to put the effort—in even when it‘s tough going—and improve your chances of success.

Stress response

Negative self-talk can cause or increase your stress and our bodies respond with aches and pains (or worse!). Negative self-talk may also encourage you to behave foolishly or destructively, putting a further strain on your body. The good news is that positive self-talk has the opposite effect— it lowers stress and relaxes the body.

How to rewrite your script

  1. Become aware of negative or destructive thoughts, especially longstanding ones.
  2. Reframe your negative thought into a positive or more realistic one.
  3. Repeat your new, positive thought as an affirmation or mantra. Eventually you will start to believe it.
  4. Congratulate yourself for caring for yourself.


Source: Self-Talk: How Self-Talk Affects Stress from Parlay International.
Parlay International provides information on health, education, safety and productivity training.

Identifying your stress-inducing self-talk

The next time you have a stress reaction (large or small), pause to analyze what thoughts were going through you mind about the situation ― that is, identify your self-talk.

Write down some of the examples of your self-talk.


  • Why is this situation a problem for me?
  • What’s really upsetting me?
  • What was I saying to myself that caused my stress to increase? Is my self-image or self-esteem feeling threatened?
  • Am I feeling intimidated or rejected?
  • What fears, beliefs, insecurities may be operating here?

Notice if there are any patterns to your self-talk (bet there are!)

Notice whether your stress level lowers after you understand why you got upset.


Adapted from: Posen, D. (2003). The Little Book of Stress Relief. Toronto: Key Porter Books Ltd.

Thought Record

Situation Who were you with?

What were you doing?

When was it?

Where were you?

Mood Describe each mood in one word. Rate intensity of mood (0-100%)
Automatic Thoughts (Images) Answer some or all of the following questions:

What was going through my mind just before I started to feel this way?

What does this say about me?

What does this mean about me? My life? My future?

What am I afraid might happen?

What is the worst thing that could happen if this is true?

What does this mean about how the other person(s) feel(s)/ think(s) about me?

What does this mean about how the other person(s) feel(s)/think(s) about me?

What does this mean about the person(s) or people in general?

What images or memories do I have in this situation?

Evidence in Support of Hot Thoughts Circle hot thought in previous column for which you are looking for evidence.

Write factual evidence to support this conclusion.

(Try to avoid mind-reading and interpretation of facts.)

Evidence NOT in Support of Hot Thoughts Ask yourself the questions in the Hint Box to help discover evidence which does not support your hot thought.
Alternative/Balanced Thoughts Ask yourself the questions in the Hint Box to generate alternative or balanced thoughts.

Write an alternative or balanced thought.

Rate how much you believe in each alternative or balanced thought (0-100%).

Rate Mood Now Copy the feelings from the Mood column.

Rate the intensity of each feeling from 0-100%, as well as any new records.

How to use the Thought Record

Column 1 Situation: Write down your anxiety-provoking situation.

Column 2 Moods: Describe what you felt (e.g. panic, anxiety) and rate each mood‘s intensity 1-100%.

Column 3 Automatic Thoughts: Write down what was going through your mind, including images, just before you started to feel this way. Then, circle the ‘hot thought,’ i.e., the thought that caused your anxiety to peak. Column 4 Evidence ‘For’: Starting with the ‘hot thought’ you circled in Column 3, look for factual evidence that supports this conclusion. Try to avoid interpretation of facts.

Column 5 Evidence ‘Against’: Now look for evidence which does not support your hot thought. If you are having a hard time finding this evidence, try asking:  “If my best friend or someone who loves me knew I was having this thought, what would they say to me?”

Column 6 Alternative Thoughts: Now look at the evidence, for and against. If the evidence does not support your hot thought(s), ask “Is there an alternative way to thinking about or understanding this situation?” Write an alternative view of the situation.

* If your hot thought is partially true, combine the evidence, for and against, into a balanced thought. e.g. Hot thought: “I can‘t get this thesis done.” Balanced thought: “Writing a thesis is a large project, but I have completed other projects of this scale in the past.”

** If your hot thought is true, ask: What is the worst outcome? What is the best outcome? What is the most realistic outcome?

Column 7 Rate New Moods: Finally, rerate the intensity of each feeling and compare to the intensity in Column 2.

You might notice that the mood‘s intensity has decreased.


Source: Greenberger, D. & Padesky, C.A. (1995). Mind Over Mood. NY: The Guilford Press.

Ways to accept

Love your problems

Accept the problem by experiencing it, telling the truth about it, describing it in detail. Unconditional acceptance: this is not giving in to the problem, or giving up, but is a way to be with it and get to know it.

Loving your problem frees you from it by draining it of its power, rather than denying its existence or struggling against it.


Reach for help when you feel the problem is too big to handle by yourself. Trying to control a problem can result in the problem controlling you.

Surrendering is not quitting, or resignation. You can use your resources to handle the problem and then surrender (e.g. to the outcome) with a trusting spirit. Surrender to a higher power or to the self.

Detach and watch from a distance without judgment. Letting things happen rather than making things happen leads to inner peace.

Celebrate your mistakes

Celebrating allows us to notice the mistake. Mistakes are valuable feedback.

Mistakes demonstrate that we‘re taking risks and are willing to learn and grow.

Celebrating mistakes reminds us that it‘s OK to make them.

Celebrating mistakes includes everyone.

Mistakes occur only when we aim at a clear goal.

Mistakes happen only when we‘re committed to making things work.

Celebrating mistakes cuts the problem down to size.


Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp 186-87.

Stress Inoculation Procedure


  1. An anxiety hierarchy: Before practicing this procedure, build an anxiety hierarchy, from least to most anxiety-provoking scenarios. Using this hierarchy will help you learn to cope with increasingly stressful situation.
  2. Coping statements: Choose coping statements to say to yourself before, during and after the interaction or stress situation. For a list of example coping statements, go to the Coping Statements tool in our Managing Stress at University module.
  3. Before: Preparing for the situation
  4. During: Confronting the situation
  5. During: Coping with negative effects
  6. After: Reinforcement: Reward yourself even though you were very anxious about it.


  1. Get mentally and physically relaxed: e.g. deep breathing, muscle relaxation, imagining
  2. Visualize the first scene in the anxiety hierarchy: Describe your anxiety-provoking situation as clearly and with as much detail as possible

Identify Escape Routes

Start to cope: Once the visualized scene is clear in your mind, begin relaxing and using your coping statements/ thoughts. Continue for 30-60 seconds –unless anxiety becomes too high.

  1. Rate your anxiety 0 to 10 (0 = no anxiety 10 = major panic attack)
  2. Do more deep relaxation as you picture yourself successfully handling the situation. vi) Repeat above.

Rate your anxiety 0 to 10.

When anxiety is low, move onto the next most stressful scene in the hierarchy. Don‘t forget to reward yourself for having the courage to try new ways of coping with stress.

Stress Inoculation Training: Coping Statements

Although it’s better to create your own stress-coping statement and memorize them, here are some examples to get you started. These coping statements were designed as part of Meichenbaum’s Stress Inoculation Training program.

1.   Preparation

  • There‘s nothing to worry about. I‘m going to be all right.
  • I‘ve succeeded with this before.
  • I know I can do each one of these tasks.
  • It‘s easier once I get started. I‘ll jump in and be all right. Tomorrow I‘ll be through it.

2.   Confronting the situation

  • Stay organized
  • Take it step by step.
  • I can do this; I‘m doing it now.
  • I can only do my best.
  • Any tension I feel is a signal to use my coping exercises. I can get help if I need it.
  • If I don‘t think about fear, I won‘t be afraid.
  • If I get tense, I‘ll take a breather and relax.

3.   Coping with negative effects

  • Relax now!
  • Just breathe deeply.
  • There‘s an end to it.
  • Keep my mind on the task at hand.
  • I can keep this within limits I can handle. I can always call _____.
  • I am only afraid if I decide to be. I can decide not to be.
  • I‘ve survived this and worse before.
  • Being active will lessen the fear.

4.   Reinforcing success

  • I did all right. I did well.
  • Next time I won‘t have to worry so much.
  • I am able to relax away anxiety.
  • It‘s possible not to be scared. All I have to do is stop thinking I’m scared.


Source: Davis, M., Eshelma, E.R. & McKay, M. (2000). 5th edition. The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.