Self-talk is basically just the constant chatter that is going on in your head. It's important to remember that your self-talk is not always true or meaningful. It's definitely not always helpful or productive.
Let's take an easy example. The night before an exam you might have thoughts like:
"What if I fail this exam and then have to take summer school and none of my friends do. Then I flunk out of high school and have to work a crappy job for the rest of my life, if I can even GET a job?"
How would this chain of thoughts make you feel and behave?
Nervous and irritable, develop a stomach ache or headache, have tight muscles, maybe lose sleep, yell at your mom.
Not exactly the best state in which to take an exam!
Or, you can have thoughts like:
"I'm nervous about the exam, but that means it's important to me, and I want to do well. I've studied for it, and all I can do is my best tomorrow. I will listen to my test anxiety visualization tomorrow morning and remember the test-taking steps. I won't let my anxiety stop me."
Thoughts like this will help you feel:
Calmer, more confident and in control,
and more likely to be able to sleep
now that you have a plan.
So how you react depends on the meaning you give to the thing or event, and what you say to yourself. It is how you are thinking about the situation that is giving you anxiety, not the situation itself!
So why do I make such a big deal out of little things?
Let's say you have to give a presentation in front of the whole class. You're not in any real danger, right? No tiger is going to jump out from under a desk and maul you if you don't do a good job. The other students won't attack you or throw eggs at you (um, probably not).
But in fact, giving a talk in front of the class actually IS a potentially "dangerous" situation, because it could hurt your pride or lead you to feel embarrassed and judged, or you could get a bad mark. If you tend to beat yourself up for mistakes or get embarrassed easily, talking in front of others is a big risk, and in a sense, really feels dangerous!
You may have some negative self-talk like:
"Everyone will think I'm stupid and boring – my hands will shake – face red – stutter – what if I faint? Totally embarrassing. Want to die."
You have these types of thoughts because what others think about you is important to you. There is nothing wrong with that. So the "danger" if you mess up is that everyone might think badly of you, and you would beat yourself up too. So if these automatic thoughts pop up first, it makes total sense that you would feel anxious about the talk.
Remember – just because a thought or image pops in your head quickly, doesn’t mean it is accurate or even realistic. Catch and challenge these pesky automatic thoughts, they are sneaky and quick!