In the groundbreaking book, “What to Say When You Talk to Yourself”, Dr. Shad Helmstetter explains the concept of neuroplasticity and how the brain develops pathways based on repetition. How does this apply to nursing students, you ask? Great question!

So many nursing students start off ALREADY believing nursing school will be an impossible task. I blame a lot of this on the negative posts that run rampant on social media, the memes about how you have no life, and the real truth that nursing school is very challenging. But challenging does not equal impossible.

When you start off by saying things like, “Nursing school is going to be really hard for me” or “I’m bad at math” or “I don’t know how to study”…then guess what? Nursing school WILL be really hard for you, you WILL be bad at medication math, and you WILL struggle with finding an effective way to study. And that’s because of neuroplasticity.

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With repetition (such as a negative statement), your brain develops a pathway that makes these statements easier and easier to say (and believe) over time. And because our brains are always looking for ways to be efficient, it’s going to follow the pathways that have already been developed. So, you’ll not only believe these negative statements, your actions will follow.

What you say, becomes what you believe, becomes what you DO.

Let’s look at this using a scenario of Student A (Alice) and Student B (Bob).

  • Alice has always hated math. She took the bare minimum math requirements in high school and in her first undergraduate degree. She tells herself all the time, “i’m not a numbers person” and firmly believes the statement, “I am bad at math.” She knows she has to pass a dosage calculations exam for nursing school and fears she will fail.
  • Bob has struggled with math in the past as well, but knows he needs to master dosage calculations in order to be successful in nursing school. Bob is open to having a different perspective about math. Bob says, “I am going to learn how to do dosage calculations.”

Just from this very basic scenario, which student do you think is going to struggle MORE with dosage calculations? If you selected Alice, then you get a gold star!

Alice has set herself up for failure before school even starts. Before she even LEARNS a method for performing dosage calculations, she already believes it’s going to be a struggle. Her brain has made a well-defined pathway titled “I am bad at math” and it’s going to follow that pathway no matter what.

And though Bob has had a negative perception around math in the past, he isn’t going to let that stop him. He’s developing a NEW PATHWAY titled “I am going to learn dosage calculations.” As he repeats this statement, his brain develops a pathway that his beliefs can then follow. And what he believes becomes what he DOES. And that, my friends, is why Bob is going to ace dosage calculations with confidence and Alice is going to struggle, feel a lot of self-doubt, and start off her nursing school education with a negative and stressful experience.

Story time! This topic of negative self talk comes up a lot in my Crucial Concepts Bootcamp, and I was speaking about it in an Office Hours session. One of the participants in that session, a first-semester student named Amber, really took this concept to heart. Amber had always believed that she was bad at math and that medication math was going to be the reason she failed nursing school. She was about to start the program ALREADY BELIEVING she was going to fail! Talk about unempowering, right?

So after we talked about neuroplasticity and how negative self talk becomes a pathway that your brain is more than willing to follow, Amber went right to work on developing a NEW pathway. Instead of saying “I’m bad at math” (which is what she had always said and believed), Amber started saying, “My brain is open to learning math. My brain knows this is hard, but I am practicing and feeling more confident every day.” She wrote out this empowering and true statement, taped it to her computer screen and repeated it every single day.

Amber reached out to me about midway through her first semester to tell me this:

“I have been getting EXCELLENT grades my first semester and have so much confidence in my ability. I don’t know how I would be doing it without the material you have created. Thank you!”

Amber didn’t suddenly become a math genius. She simply changed the way she talked to herself about math. She took a negative statement and re-framed it into a positive one. That’s it.Straight A Nursing Testimonial

How to re-frame a negative statement

Notice that Amber’s re-framed statement wasn’t just “I’m great at math!” because that probably isn’t true for her. She probably has always struggled with math. To suddenly start saying, “I’m great at math” wouldn’t be believable. And if it’s not believable, her brain is going to have a hard time making a really solid pathway along those lines.

Instead, her statement was TRUE and believable. She said, “My brain is open to learning how to do math. My brain knows this is hard, but I am practicing and getting better every day.” That statement was something she could believe and so her brain was able to make a rock-solid pathway. Over time that pathway led to her getting excellent grades and having an incredible amount of confidence in her ability.

What she said, became what she believed, became what she did.

And the same can happen for you. So let’s do a little exercise.

Grab a piece of paper and jot down one negative thing you say to yourself about nursing school. Some common ones to get you thinking are:

  • I am bad at math
  • I’m not a good test taker
  • I struggle with pathophysiology
  • Pharmacology is impossible for me
  • Clinicals cause me anxiety
  • I’m a terrible parent because I never see my kids
  • I am going to fail
  • Nursing school is overwhelming

Now let’s take a look at how we could reframe our negative self-talk. Here are some ideas for inspiration. Remember, the statement has to be something you actually do believe!


Negative Self-Talk Reframed Statement
I am bad at math.


I can learn how to do dosage calculations. I feel more confident the more I practice.


I’m not a good test taker.


I am studying hard and I am learning this material.


I struggle with pathophysiology.


Pathophysiology is difficult, but I am breaking it down into manageable concepts.


Pharmacology is impossible for me.


Pharmacology is a challenging class, so I am focusing on learning the drug classes really well.


Clinicals cause me anxiety.


It’s normal to be nervous in clinicals. When I feel anxious, I’ll take ten deep breaths and remind myself that I’m a student and here to learn.


I’m a terrible parent because I never see my kids.


I am setting an example of hard work and determination for my children.


I am going to fail.


I am working hard and passing my classes.


Nursing school is overwhelming. Nursing school may be tough, but I am going to take on each challenge one at a time.


See how easy and empowering that is? Now, take that re-framed statement and put it somewhere visible where you will see it every single day. Make it the wallpaper image on your computer, tape it to the bathroom mirror or slap it on a post-it note in your planner. See it, repeat it, believe it and then DO IT.

It really is that simple. Give it a try and let me know how it goes! You can start repeating all this information when you listen to episode 165 of the Straight A Nursing podcast. 🙂


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