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Talking to Yourself? --- When You Should Worry

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March 6, 2016

By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Featured Columnist




When I was in high school, the best way I got through math problems was talking myself through them. Math is not my forte, although I wasn’t bad in geometry. It felt a little bit weird; I mean, why couldn’t I figure it out like I did with other things, like English literature or Spanish? With those topics, I could just read and understand. 

Besides, isn’t talking to yourself a bit eccentric and crazy? Like something mentally or emotionally unstable people do while walking down the street?

However, years later, while training to be a writing tutor, I learned that verbalizing is good for academics. While helping people with their papers, I noticed that if they read it out loud, they caught the errors themselves.

Or if I prompted them to “say it like you would as if you were explaining it to me,” they would write it in a clearer fashion. So, verbal feedback has got to have something going for it.

Sure, you might be thinking—but there’s a difference between having a conversation with yourself and reading a paper aloud. Talking to yourself is just for nutjobs.

Well, it turns out that some crazy people talk to themselves, but most people who talk to themselves aren’t crazy.

Not only is it generally harmless, self-dialogue can actually be positive intellectually and emotionally.


It’s Perfectly Normal

More than one concerned patient has turned to a psychologist saying, “I talk to myself a lot. Am I crazy?”

The answer is usually no. Talking to yourself can be a sign of schizophrenia, but this usually comes with other more serious symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations, amongst others.

The average person who talks to himself or herself doesn’t have any particular psychological condition. Although the phenomenon of talking to oneself has a name in psychology, “private speech”, this just serves as psychologist lingo to study common patterns and development.


You Learn by Talking to Yourself













My method of talking myself through math problems is actually a quite common part of development. And it doesn’t start in high school.

According to a 1990 study by Jennifer A. Bivens (Clark University, Massachusetts) and Laura Berk (Illinois State University) that examined the development of elementary school students, it is common for children between the ages of 2-7 to practice private speech.

When they are doing a step-by-step activity, like tying shoes, they will often narrate: “Okay, now through the left loop.” They also may comment on the process, such as saying “I did it!” or “This is hard”.

Later, we are taught to be quiet and internalize talking into silent thought. But the mechanism still stays with us.

Although high school students tend to do their schoolwork silently, various studies show that the childhood development pattern persists for problem solving. And it can actually help foster academic success.

In a 2001 study, Robert M. Duncan and J. Allan Cheyne from the University of Waterloo looked at private speech in young adults. They asked 53 university students, aged 18-23, to perform 6 study tasks involving computer work and paper folding. Over 80% of participants talked to themselves during all 6 tasks, and 100% talked to themselves at least once.

It turns out that this overwhelming instinct is an intellectual survival mechanism.

In 1994, Carol Marie Kronk from Tufts University in Massachusetts conducted an experiment on 47 high school seniors and college freshmen, with an average age of 17.

She discovered that adolescents whose private speech included self-guidance or description got the highest test scores.

A 2006 study of preschoolers by James Winsler from George Mason University, Virginia, revealed the same: talking leads to higher task performance.

So, if you need to get something done well, get it done as your own audio-guide.

And remember that talking to yourself can have great emotional benefits, too.


If I had the chance, I’d ask the world to chat  

…but I’ll be talkin’ to myself. Woah, woah, woah, woah. Sometimes you are your own best company, especially in this digital age. People seem to be better suited to messaging than talking these days. Sure, you’ve got your friends, but they aren’t always available.

Often you need a good person to talk to in the moment, and that good person could be you.  

According to Linda Sapadin, Ph.D., a New York-based psychologist who specializes in overcoming self-defeating patterns of behavior, self-dialogue is actually healthy. It can relieve loneliness, make you smarter, and clarify your thoughts.

Here are some productive ways to talk to yourself:

1.      Give Yourself Compliments

It’s good to keep that self-esteem up with some love. Hopefully, other people will tell you how great you are, but remember that the most important relationship you have is with yourself. So what you think of you is important.

If you did a great job on a work project or exam, congratulate yourself: “Hey, good job. I’m going to take you out for a treat.” If you’re looking especially nice in that new shirt, say: “That’s a great color on you. It brings out your eyes.” It isn’t narcissism. You would give those compliments to others, so why not give them to yourself, too?


2.      Motivate Yourself

Sometimes motivation is difficult to find. You’re tired; you’re sick of everything. But if you give yourself a gentle verbal nudge, it’s often useful. “Just get through this week, and we can relax and go out on the weekend.” “Just a few more pushups and you’re done with the routine.

You’ll feel better and stronger soon.” Actually saying these things out loud, externalizing them, will make a difference.


3.      Create an Outer Dialogue

Sometimes there is a decision you are struggling with in your head. Should I change careers? Should I devote more time to friends or to a new hobby? Should I start a new activity? It remains there as anxiety, and you don’t actually make a decision.

Try having a real dialogue with yourself, with questions and answers, comments and responses. The kind where anyone watching you would probably think you’re crazy.

But if you have the conversation, it can help to really clarify what you want, more than writing it and more than thinking it.


4.      Set Goals

Sure, you can make a to-do list and check things off. But if you recite your plan verbally, it’s a great way to go.

It’s the same process behind narrating yourself through a difficult math problem. If you talk through what you’re doing while you do it, and remind yourself of future goals, it will reinforce the activity, and lead you to your next step. When you have a process with multiple parts, such as applying for university or planning a big holiday party, try accompanying yourself verbally.



So…When Should I Worry?


Sometimes talking to yourself is indicative of a psychological disorder.

The most common ones --- Schizophrenia and depression. As mentioned earlier, schizophrenia is relatively rare. It is in approximately 1% of the U.S. population, and can often be linked to genetics. If there is another schizophrenic in the family, you are more likely to have it.

Other symptoms include delusions, going in and out of lucidity, jumbled speech, inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and extreme behavioral episodes.

In a 2015 study by W. Hinzen at the University of Durham, UK, they defined schizophrenia primarily in terms of thought disturbance as language pathology.

The 3 principal characteristics were as a disorder of speech perception (Auditory Verbal Hallucinations), abnormal speech production running without feedback control (Formal Thought Disorder), and production of abnormal linguistic content (Delusions). 

We can observe the second and third characteristics, and clearly contrast them with healthy self-talk. If you are talking to yourself coherently without delusion and with self-monitoring, you are okay.


Negative self-talk (telling yourself “I’m an idiot”, “I’m always making mistakes”, etc.), has been correlated with depression.

In a 1997 study from KR Ronan and PC Kendall from Massey University in New Zealand, they tested 542 children, aged 7-15.

Children with anxiety and depression demonstrated the highest levels of negative self-talk. Of course, this concept applies to all humans; not just the smaller ones amongst us. 

Treat yourself with respect. You hopefully wouldn’t say mean things to others, so definitely don’t say them to yourself. Instead say, “Hmmm. That didn’t work. How can I improve that?” Or “Okay, I’ll do better next time by planning ahead.”

Replace negativity with constructive criticism and/or positivity. Don’t fall into the habit of beating yourself up. Move forward instead. 




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