Jenny came to see me about her panic attacks at work.
‘It’s bad enough when I’m at a meeting but if I have to get up and give a presentation, I’m all over the place; dry mouth, sweats, dizzy, falling over my words. Sometimes I’ve called in sick rather update the team on last month’s figures. I can’t work out what’s happening. It’s definitely getting worse.’
I asked Jenny when it started.
‘To be honest, probably at school when I had to stand up and read in front of the class. I had a bit of a speech impediment and my teacher thought it was funny to mock me. I had to stand on a chair if I didn’t get the pronunciation right.’
It was clear there was some trauma there. We processed that with the Rewind technique. It generally works well but the following week Jenny was still having problems.
‘It’s a bit better, but I’m still nervous’ she said.
This time I asked Jenny to monitor her internal dialogue as she prepared for her next presentation. ‘We talk to ourselves all the time but we are often not aware of what we are saying and the effect that is having on us’ I explained.
Jenny got herself a note book and set to work recording the words on the background tape playing in her head. She was shocked by what she noticed. Here’s her list:
I hope I don’t trip over my words
What if I lash up?
They’ll all laugh at me
I’ll lose my job
I’m an idiot
Why aren’t I normal
They’ll realise I’m not as competent as they thought
If I can’t do my job, I’ll lose my house
‘No wonder you’re feeling tense and nervous’, I said. ‘When we talk to ourselves, we are listening. Everything you’re saying is pressing the adrenaline button. You’re turning on your fight or flight response with your own thoughts. It might be time to sack your inner critic and employ an inner coach instead.’
The science bit
Positive affirmations have been around for a while. They are positive phrases or statements used to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts or beliefs. They are backed by widely accepted and well-established psychological studies such as Self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988) which was the result of empirical research on the idea that we can maintain a positive sense of self by talking to ourselves in positive ways.
With the new brain sciences, we are also becoming increasingly aware of the role of the autonomic nervous system in managing our emotional state, our immunity, digestion, inflammation in the body and much more.
With the evolution of the third layer and two hemispheres of the human brain, came the dawn of consciousness and the development of the ventral vagal system; a feedback loop of nerves that runs through the body and also connects to the organs of communication, including the voice and the ear.
When the brain became aware of itself, it developed the ability to tell the body to calm down. Our inner dialogue could turn off the fight or flight response when we perceived ourselves to be in a safe environment. In this way, we became social beings and were able to form group and family bonds.
For Jenny, the implications were clear. She simply had to talk to herself in a more positive way by turning around the anxiety provoking statements she had identified.
‘I hope I don’t stutter or trip over my words’ now became ‘I speak in a calm and clear voice.’
‘What if I lash up?’ became ‘what if this is my best presentation yet?’
‘I’m an idiot’ became’ I’m pretty good at this and getting better all the time’
It made a big difference. Jenny’s brain was now talking to her body in a way that made it feel calm, safe and in control.
Positive self statements
Below are some examples of positive self statements. They are the kind of thing you can say to yourself in the mirror first thing in the morning as you brush your teeth, last thing at night before you go to sleep or just ahead of that big presentation that could get you your next promotion.
Pick one (or better still, construct your own) and repeat it regularly to hack your brain happier… especially now you know it’s backed by solid science!
- i am calm, focused and in control
- I am healthy and feel good.
- My life is full of happiness and joy.
- I am relaxed in every situation.
- I am at peace with myself and with the world.
- My thoughts are under my control.
- I am successful in whatever I do.
- Everything in my life is getting better every day.
- I think positive thoughts that attract happiness and prosperity into my life.
- My efforts are fruitful, and all my plans turn out even better than I expected.
- I have plenty of inspiration, motivation and courage, which help me achieve everything I want.
- Day by day I am progressing toward my perfect weight.
- My positive attitude is making everything easier in my life.
- I let go of worries and enjoy inner peace.
- I am in charge of my time.
- I make good and wise decisions.
- I sleep well every night.
- yes I can
You can still access your free ‘Time for a Change’ workbook here. I hope it is helpful for you and for your clients.
Stay safe and well.
Frances Masters MBACP accred GHGI
Managing Director Fusion Therapeutic Coaching Ltd
Motivation, resolving depression, the Rewind Technique, Mindfulness Based Mind Management (advanced MBSR), worrying well, solution focus, guided visualisation, resolving addiction, epigenetics, mapping the connectome, polyvagal theory, the reticular activating system (RAS), secondary gain, trauma resolution, coaching for kids, treating depression, worrying well, working SMART, therapeutic stories, insight, psycho education, suicide prevention, affirmations, positive mental rehearsal, imagery, dissociation, goal setting, new paradigms, reframes, fast track learning, perception shifting, self actualisation, positive psychology, reframing, metaphor, personal empowerment, motivational thinking, resilience and resourcefulness, human flourishing, anchoring, rewiring your brain, the STOP System, the SAFE SPACE happiness recipe, holistic coaching and working on the continuum of wellbeing plus many other professional theories, tools and techniques underpin the content of the fast paced, fast track, Fusion training programmes.