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The power of language

When you wake up in the morning, what's the first thing that pops into your head? If you're someone who struggles with depression, anxiety or low self-esteem, the day's first thoughts are likely to be negative, gloomy or self-critical. Your brain may go into auto-scan mode, sifting the previous day/week/month's events for reasons to feel bad about yourself. The stupid comment you made at that party; the dressing down your boss gave you in the meeting; the way you stumbled over your presentation.

You might think about the day ahead and see nothing but daunting, unpleasant tasks stretching out in a long line leading back to bed. If this is so, after 10 minutes of whirling negative thoughts, what happens to your mood? Even if you woke up warm, relaxed and dreamy, you're unlikely to feel that way for long. Welcome to another day...

And for many of us, almost every waking moment (when we're not frantically distracting ourselves) for the rest of the day is accompanied by a running commentary, 'self-talk' analysing everything we see, say and do. If you were somehow able to record this subliminal stream, you would be astounded at the things you tell yourself – the harsh, unforgiving, judgmental attitude you adopt. No wonder, then, that you might lack confidence, have a poor self-image or find your mood constantly dipping. How could it not?

'Language is the blood of the soul, into which thoughts run and out of which they grow'
Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the first things I tell my clients is to watch out for this self-talk – especially words like 'should', 'ought', 'must' and 'have to'. It's virtually impossible to use these loaded words in a way that doesn't crank up our stress levels or make us feel bad:

And so on. As an experiment, try replacing these 'imperatives' with kinder alternatives:

See the difference? Also watch out for self-limiting talk, like:

Are any of these statements really true? Even if they were, how does it help you to think this way? Wouldn't you rather replace them with kinder, more open and inspiring possibilities?

One of the key tasks of cognitive therapy is challenging the way we think – especially when it's destructive or self-limiting. Language is incredibly powerful, so use it in ways that make you feel good, not bad, because life can be tough enough without attacking ourselves all the time. Be compassionate towards yourself. Making mistakes is an integral part of being human, so rather than beating yourself up for them, think 'What can I learn from that?'

Imagine you're speaking to a good friend – what would you tell them? How would you phrase things so they felt supported and encouraged, not belittled and judged? Try talking to yourself in the same way, even if it's really hard at first. Like anything in life, the more you practice, the easier it gets.

I run workshops through my company, Calm Self Workshops, for people struggling with stress. The Overcoming Stress workshops take place one Saturday a month at my East Finchley office and cost £150 for a full day.

If you would like to book a session with me or a place on my next workshop, call me on 07766 704210, email or use the contact form to get in touch.