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Negative Self-Talk Can Hurt You

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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Sometimes a little self-criticism is not a bad thing. We all can learn much from our mistakes. However, too much of it may affect your brain -- and your life.

Negative self-talk. It is that little voice in your head that judges you. It says you are not good enough. It reminds you of all your faults and mistakes.

"Negative self-talk actually determines the outcomes in our lives. The way we talk to ourselves about ourselves, and the way we talk to other people about ourselves, literally creates the outcomes in our lives."

That is Professor Paul Hughes. He is an educator and researcher on how the mind controls behavior. He says the way we talk to ourselves and about ourselves to other people can affect every part of our lives – from our career to our family life.

Hughes saw this firsthand while teaching at a community college. He noticed that some students who studied hard and came to class every day still did poorly on exams. He wondered why.

"What I discovered is that there are some students who are doing all the right things. They are good students. They show up for class. They do their homework. They study hard. But when it comes to exam time they fold under the pressure."

Students may do everything right. But when it comes time to take a test, they do not do well. They may suffer from something commonly called "test anxiety."

Negative self-talk can affect a student's grades

So, why do good students sometimes do poorly on tests? Hughes uses a common expression to explain. If there is a lot on the line, there is a lot a student can lose. The result? They get nervous and test poorly.

"There is test anxiety because students have their futures on the line. They understand that if they get good grades on exams, they are going to have more choices of colleges that they can attend and in some cases even careers they can pursue and it puts a lot of pressure on them."

Hughes explains that failing several tests can affect a student's confidence – and future test performances. This, he says, can become a pattern.

"Once that happens, that triggers a pattern. When you continually fail at something -- and I know this from my study of psychology -- we all engage, whether it's exams or anything else, we all wind up talking to ourselves, negative self-talk, without even realizing we're doing it, saying like, 'Why don't I remember anything I study?' or 'Why do I get so tense?' Those statements actually re-program the same negative outcome over and over and over."

Hughes used one of his students at a community college as an example. Lindsay was a good student. She came to class early, took part in discussions and did all of her homework.

However, she did poorly on exams. When Hughes asked her how she felt before a test, she told him she was very tense. She wondered why she had trouble remembering what she had studied. She said she did not trust that she knew the right answers.

Hughes took Lindsay's negative statements and turned them into positive questions. Before a test, He told Lindsey to say to herself: Why am I so relaxed when I take an exam? Why am I so focused during my exam? Why do I remember everything I study for an exam? Why do I trust my answers?

Lindsay took his advice. Two weeks later, she took an exam in another class and scored 15 points higher than she had on an earlier exam. Four weeks later, she earned a "B" on the final exam in Hughes' class.

Lindsay left community college and went to a four-year university. She continued to use the method of positive self-talk. When Prof. Hughes checked up on her a year later, she had good news to share: she had gotten straight As on all of her exams.

Hughes saw student after student succeed with his method. So he decided to write a book about the subject. His book is called "Change Your Grades, Change Your Life."

He claims that his method of positive self-talk works with all the students who have tried it. He adds that they got more than just good test scores. They got their self-confidence back.

Again, here is Hughes.

"The biggest outcome, by the way, of every single student who succeeds with this is that they get their self-confidence back. You start failing exams and you've got teachers judging you, you've got parents judging you. And they're judging you not even realizing that you're having this problem. The more students that I can get to restore their self-esteem and send them further on into life and into adulthood with good self-confidence is a huge win-win."

Hughes does not just help his students. He also uses his positive self-talk to help friends and neighbors. In a television interview, he summed it up this way: "We can program ourselves for success in class or in life, or we can program ourselves for failure."

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Do you have a method for overcoming anxiety in your life? Let us know in the Comments Section.

Anna Matteo reported this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

negative adj. harmful or bad

positive adj. good or useful

impactv. to have a strong and often bad effect on (something or someone)

outcomen. something that happens as a result of an activity or process

fold under pressure expression. to do poorly when in a state of stress

anxiety n. fear or nervousness about what might happen

trigger n. to cause an intense and usually negative emotional reaction in (someone)

relaxed - adj. calm and free from stress

focused - adj. giving attention and effort to a specific task or goal

pattern n. something that happens in a regular and repeated way

self-confidence n. sure of one's abilities

self-esteemn. a feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities

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