Using Rational Self-Talk to Defuse Stress

In a prior blog (Thoughts that Cause Stress) I discussed how certain mental habits and specific beliefs can actually increase our stress in very powerful ways. For the past 50 years psychologists have researched the best ways to change these stress-inducing mental habits and beliefs. These methods, which are sometimes called “cognitive restructuring,” require a few steps. The first step is simply becoming more aware of which habits and beliefs are causing you the most stress. You can improve your awareness by periodically reviewing the prior blog’s description of the major habits and beliefs that are likely culprits in increasing your stress.

When you become more sensitive to the fact that your thoughts and beliefs about a stressful event can magnify your reaction, you can begin to diffuse any irrational or negative thinking. These types of thinking patterns which are probably going on throughout your daily activities are likely to be somewhat automatic and unconscious. However, you can become more aware of them by asking yourself some basic questions whenever you notice that your stress level increasing in certain situations. For example, when an event occurs that increases your stress noticeably, ask yourself what you are thinking about the situation. What am I telling myself? Is this stressor triggering any of my irrational beliefs? Are some of my stress producing mental habits such as catastrophizing or focusing on the negative kicking in?

Blank Stress Analysis Charts can help you become even more aware of your stress producing self‑talk, which in turn will allow you to change it.

Make several copies of the charts, and whenever you notice a significant stress reaction, record your thoughts and your reactions in the left column. You then try to challenge the stress‑producing irrational thoughts with more rational self‑talk. As you get in the habit of noticing any of your irrational or negative thinking, you will be able to begin to learn a new language. This language produces less stress because it keeps things in perspective ‑ it keeps us more rational. This new language is represented on the right hand column of the chart. Here, truthful thoughts and statements about the stressful event are likely to be more rational and positive. Many of these statements directly challenge and dispute any irrational thoughts that were identified. This does not mean that tragic, painful, or upsetting situations will feel good. However, what it does mean is that the event will not be made any more stressful than it has to be.

The key goal here is learning a new way of thinking ‑ essentially learning a new language. Our old language that magnifies stress can be so strong that it will take a lot of patience and practice to learn the new one. Just as if you were learning a foreign language you would go through stages where the translation process is awkward and cumbersome. You have to consciously think of the correct way to say something and then translate from one language to the other. This is also true with learning how to talk rationally to yourself. Over time, you will begin to speak fluently with a rational dialog if you continue to practice. However, anyone who has taken a foreign language in school will recall that when it was not used regularly we could barely speak that language. You will need to use the language of rational self‑talk regularly in order to be successful in developing this coping skill.


Here are a few general reminders about talking rationally to yourself. When you notice uncomfortable stress, take a few seconds to think as rationally and positively as you can.

  • What is making me so stressed?
  • It is probably not as bad as I think.
  • I’ve handled situations like this before.
  • I can calm myself and feel better later.

If these thoughts are not controlling your stress effectively, try to get more practice using the disputing and challenging skills on the Stress Analysis Charts. Make your statements specific to the exact stressor you are facing. Again, the goal is to keep things in perspective so that your stress is not exaggerated unnecessarily. Remember you are still going to feel some emotional reaction, especially if this is a significant event. This skill can become a powerful psychological tool that can be used anywhere, anytime.

You now have a major technique for mentally or psychologically controlling your stress. Remember these general principles of the cognitive methods covered in this blog:

  • Talk calmly to yourself when a stressor occurs.
  • Try to keep the stressful event in perspective.
  • Reassure yourself of your improved abilities to manage stress.
  • Avoid catastrophizing, maintaining unreasonable expectations, and focusing on the negative.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore