Is toxic speech getting you down?

How harsh words increase our anxiety and what we can do about it.

Posted Aug 28, 2019

By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, Green Arrow cosplayer at 2014 Arizona Comic Con. On Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, Green Arrow cosplayer at 2014 Arizona Comic Con. On Wikimedia Commons

Toxic words fly around us like so many poisoned arrows. From sarcastic comments from the people around us to online bullying to the latest crisis in the news, so many messages we hear are toxic and hurtful.

Research has linked cyberbullying with teen depression and suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010), and the media is filled with invasive noise from misleading advertisements and corporate propaganda. Too much of what passes for news is celebrity gossip, one political crisis after another, and our president’s emotional late-night tweets. All this toxic speech can be hazardous to our health, increasing our stress, anxiety, and depression. (Wheaton, 1999).

And then there’s that insidious toxic speech we hear inside, the inner critic that tells us we’re “not good enough,” that calls us names like “stupid” and “loser” whenever we make a mistake. According to psychologist Paul Gilbert, this constant self-criticism actually makes us feel that we’re being attacked, triggering a stress reaction (Gilbert, 2009).

So with all this toxic noise within and around us, how can we restore our peace of mind? Recent research in psychology and neuroscience offers these recommendations:

1. Respond more mindfully to the toxic speech around us. As neurosurgeon James Doty recommends, instead of automatically reacting to someone’s negative remark with fear, anxiety, or anger, we can pause, take a deep mindful breath, and recognize “that the manner in which someone interacts with you frequently has no relationship to you” (Doty, 2019). Detaching from that negativity can help us break the toxic cycle of stress, reaction, and defensiveness.

2. Seek out spaces of silence and renewal. Limit your exposure to negativity. Instead of automatically turning on the news as we begin or end our days, we can reduce our stress by pausing for a few moments of silent meditation, thinking of something we’re grateful for, or stepping outside to connect with the beauty of nature. Research has shown that meditation, gratitude, and contact with nature can all relieve stress and restore our peace of mind.  (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006; Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Pearson & Craig, 2014).

3. Deal with the toxic speech within us. Whenever we make a mistake and find ourselves attacking ourselves with harsh words, we can practice self-compassion. As psychologist Kristin Neff recommends, we can:

  • Tune into our feelings, asking “What am I feeling?” then naming our feelings to ourselves—“I feel sad. . . scared. . . hurt. . . angry. . . confused.”
  • Remind ourselves that suffering is common to all humanity, telling ourselves, “It’s OK. No one’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.”
  • Be kind to ourselves, even giving ourselves a hug, as Neff suggests, by crossing our arms over our chests and squeezing our upper arms, saying, “Poor dear, you’re really hurting right now." (2011)

4. Become more mindful of our own speech.

  • Practicing what psychologist Carl Rogers (1961) called “active listening,” slowing down, paying attention, and mirroring back what people say to let them know they’ve been heard. Empathic, active listening offers a warm, respectful space, creating bridges of understanding, healing individuals, relationships, and communities.
  • Pausing before we speak to ask the three questions Buddhists have connected to Right Speech: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

What about you? How do you deal with toxic speech?

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This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

References

Doty, J. R. Personal communication, Mountain View, California, July 10, 2019. 

Photo by Gage Skidmore. Green Arrow cosplayer at the 2014 Amazing Arizona Comic Con at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Green_Arrow_cosplayer_(12164375135).jpg

Please attribute to Gage Skidmore

Green Arrow photo https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Green_Arrow_cosplayer_(12164375135).jpg

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377.

Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2010). Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide.  Archives of Suicide Research, 14 (3), 206-221

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow. For more information about self-compassion, see http://www.self-compassion.org/

Pearson, D. G., & Craig, T. (2014). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 21. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue. American Psychologist, 61, 227-239.

Wheaton, B. (1999). The nature of stressors. In A. V. Horwitz & T. L. Scheid (Eds.), A handbook for the study of mental health: Social contexts, theories, and systems (pp. 176-197). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wheaton, B. (1999). The nature of stressors. In A. V. Horwitz & T. L. Scheid (Eds.), A handbook for the study of mental health: Social contexts, theories, and systems (pp. 176-197). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.