The Connection Between Positive Self Talk and Improved Program Participation
A recent study by the University of Chicago, observing 9th grade girls over a 1 year period show that young women that practice cheerful and supportive over or negative and self-defeating internal chatter participate in programs at a rate of over those that don't. Take this data, the Program Collaboration is building a positive self-talk curriculum with a goal of launching the new curriculum by early next year.
From the self-affirmations of Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live to countless videos on YouTube, saying nice things to your reflection in the mirror is a self-help trope that's been around for decades, and seems most often aimed at women. The practice, we're told, can help us like ourselves and our bodies more, and even make us more successful — allow us to chase our dreams!
David Sarwer is a psychologist and clinical director at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania. He says that, in fact, a mirror is one of the first tools he uses with some new patients. He stands them in front of a mirror and coaches them to use gentler, more neutral language as they evaluate their bodies.
"Instead of saying, 'My abdomen is disgusting and grotesque,' " Sarwer explains, he'll prompt a patient to say, " 'My abdomen is round, my abdomen is big; it's bigger than I'd like it to be.' "
The goal, he says, is to remove "negative and pejorative terms" from the patient's self-talk. The underlying notion is that it's not enough for a patient to lose physical weight — or gain it, as some women need to — if she doesn't also change the way her body looks in her mind's eye.
This may sound weird. You're either a size 4 or a size 8, right?
Psychologists in 1911 noticed that when Victorian women who habitually wore huge, feathered hats walked through doors, they ducked — even when not wearing the hat.
Not mentally, apparently. In a 2013 study from the Netherlands, scientists watched women with anorexia walk through doorways in a lab. The women, they noticed, turned their shoulders and squeezed sideways, even when they had plenty of room.
At least as far back as 1911, for example, the aptly named Dr. Henry Head and Dr. Gordon Morgan Holmes — two neurologists — published a series of papers exploring the body-brain connection. But they didn't look at people with anorexia.
"They used an example of the kind of hats that were then in vogue, which were these big hats with big feathers at the top," says Coslett. Holmes and Head noticed that when women who habitually wore the big hats walked through doors, they ducked — "even when not wearing the hat," Coslett says.
Their mental self was wearing the hat, even if their physical self wasn't — just as anorexic women in the Netherlands study saw themselves carrying a bigger body. Neuroscientists are still trying to understand exactly how this works.
It's clear that we all have an internal representation of our own bodies, Coslett says. We need that very specific sense of ourselves to understand how much space we take up — so we can walk and not bump into things, or perform simple tasks, like reaching out a hand and picking up a coffee cup. Studies show that this internal sense of oneself is a powerful thing. Research on what neurologists call motor imagery indicates that the same neurological networks are used both to imagine movement, and to actually move. And imagining a movement over and over can have the same effect on our brains as practicing it physically — as well as lead to similar improvements in performance.
What Coslett wants to understand — and he's just starting to study this now — is how people with eating disorders get their mental image of their body so wrong, adding inches to their thighs, butts and bellies. By understanding exactly how this misperception works, he hopes to gain insight into how to bring closer to reality the mental body image of someone struggling with anorexia or bulimia — or just a poor self-image.
So far, evidence that the words you say to yourself could change the way you see yourself is still limited to the self-reports of patients; and the effect on brain physiology hasn't yet been studied. But Coslett thinks self-talk probably does shape the physiology of perception, given that other sensory perceptions — the intensity of pain, for example, or whether a certain taste is pleasing or foul, or even what we see — can be strongly influenced by opinions, assumptions, cultural biases and blind spots.