Learning to quell negative chatter in our heads can help us cope better with life’s inevitable challenges, psychologist Ethan Kross tells Damian Whitworth.
Ethan Kross stood in the dark in his living room gripping a child’s baseball bat so hard his knuckles were white. He stared out of the window into a night where he feared a madman was preparing to attack him, his wife and his baby daughter.
Ethan is a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and this unusual episode of paranoia was triggered by a threatening letter he had received that day about his work. He and colleagues had just published a paper showing that the brain registered physical and emotional pain in similar ways.
It was not clear why the letter writer objected to their study, but the disturbing messages and drawings he sent alarmed Ethan and over the next couple of days the inner voice in the professor’s head became increasingly frenzied.
“Should I call the alarm company? Should I get a gun? Should we move?” he asked himself. He sat at his computer and searched for bodyguards who specialised in protecting academics.
There was irony in the situation. “Me, a scientist who directs a laboratory that specialises in the study of self-control, an expert on how to tame unrelenting negative thought spirals, staring out the window at three in the morning with a tiny baseball bat in my hands, tortured by the boogeyman inside my head,” he writes in his new book.
Our silent superpower
Ethan is an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist who studies introspection. His research focuses on the silent conversations we have with ourselves and he believes that our inner voice is our superpower, allowing us to find solutions to many problems, but it can also be the “destructive kryptonite” that hurts us.
The destructive stuff is what he calls “chatter”, the churning negative thoughts and emotions that can turn our capacity for introspection into a curse. “Instead of finding solutions we end up spinning; we ruminate, we worry, we catastrophise and it’s that cycle of negative thinking and feeling which I describe as chatter,” he says.
“Our inner voice can be the source of our ability to problem-solve, innovate and create, but also a source of great despair. It can undermine our performance and decisions, compromise our relationships and our physical health.”
We all know the feeling.
“Have you ever had the experience of trying to read a book or a newspaper article while you were experiencing chatter [because] you were worried or ruminating about something?” Ethan asks. “Ever had the experience of reading a page and then realising you don’t know what you’ve just read?”
Only all the time, I say, worrying that I may be particularly ill-disciplined when it comes to controlling mind chat.
“It’s universal,” Ethan says.
Speaking from his home in Ann Arbor, where he is the director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, Ethan explains that he began his exploration of introspection as a young boy growing up in a working-class Brooklyn neighbourhood. His father, who hadn’t been to university but was a voracious reader of Eastern philosophy and religion, urged him when he had a problem to “go inside”. Ethan has spent the past 20 years in this field and because of his work was invited to President Obama’s White House to discuss how psychology could be used to inform public policy.
As Ethan was googling for bodyguards that night he stopped and said: “Ethan, what are you doing? This is crazy!” Saying his name in his head made him take a step back.
The exercise of talking to himself using his own name had subdued the inner voice. “I ended up stumbling on a tool that really did work quite powerfully.”
He calls this the “distanced self-talk”.
Ethan cites examples of people distancing themselves, from Julius Caesar writing his account of the Gallic Wars in the third person, to the Hollywood actress Jennifer Lawrence becoming emotional in an interview and saying to herself: “Okay, get a hold of yourself, Jennifer.”
“What chatter does is it zooms us in very narrowly on the threat, on the problem at hand,” Ethan says. “When we’re zoomed in tight, we lose the ability to see that bigger picture.”
Ethan, 41, who is married with daughters aged 10 and six, has sought to gain perspective on the pandemic. “I engage in mental time travel. I go back and think about the pandemic of 1918 and how that was awful but we endured it and we thrived after. And then I go into the future and I think about a year from now when I’m having high tea in London. There will come a point relatively soon where I will be able to return to normal. And that gives me hope. Those shifts speak to the elasticity of the mind and our ability to change the view, to go broader and get perspective in ways that can be really helpful when we find ourselves really stuck and mired in chatter.”
Of course, we shouldn’t always be seeking to detach ourselves from situations just to quiet extraneous noise in our heads.
“When something’s happening in our environment, we want to be laser-focused on it, to address it. But what we also then want to do is be able to break out, and that’s where things get hairy because we zoom in and we get stuck,” Ethan says.
Does talking to others help?
One would imagine that one of the best ways to clear the chatter is to chat to others. Not necessarily, Ethan says. It needs to be the right sort of chat.
Belgian psychologist Bernard Rimé found that talking to others about negative experiences doesn’t help us to recover. Talking can go wrong, Ethan says, if the friend you unload to provides empathy but not practical solutions. You can end up simply reliving a negative experience with that person, a phenomenon called co-rumination.
“We end up just co-ruminating about the event, having a vent session: ‘Can you believe she said this?’ ‘I can’t believe it.’ ‘It really pissed me off.’ ‘Really, they said that to you?’ And that ends up just adding fuel to the fire, keeps the negative emotions high.
“There are lots of ways that other people can help us … Sometimes it’s just asking a probing question, to get us to think more deeply about something.”
We don’t see ourselves with the same distance and insight that we see others – we’re all victims of what Ethan and his colleagues call Solomon’s paradox, named after the Jewish king who was able to give good advice but was not so great at making sensible decisions in his own life.
If we try to distance ourselves, it can help to tackle inner-voice ranting in romantic relationships. In one study Ethan looked at couples where one partner was an “immerser” when thinking about problems in the relationship, while the other was a “distancer” who could step outside themselves and look at the relationship. The distancers were able to ease conflict by arguing calmly, which their partner responded positively to. Even if the immerser got agitated, the distancer was able to solve the problem and ease conflict.
“If not exactly a love potion, distancing does seem to keep the flame of love from being extinguished,” he writes.
Social media strife
Ethan says there is nothing inherently bad about sharing on social media but there are pitfalls. “It provides us with a giant megaphone for broadcasting our inner voice, one that we’ve never had before in the history of our species. Think about the Facebook prompt when you sign in: ‘What’s on your mind?’ It’s beckoning you to share the thoughts that are streaming through your head.”
In real life we often pause before sounding off, perhaps because there isn’t someone immediately there to share with. “On social media [you may think], ‘Oh I’m feeling bad. Okay, let me whip out the phone.’ You can do it instantly,” Ethan says.
Overly emotional posts, he explains, tend to alienate and irritate other users. So the empathy you may be looking for online may not be forthcoming. People with depression share more negative content on social media but find their network less helpful than non-depressed people.
A study by Ethan and colleagues found the more time people spent passively scrolling on Facebook, the more envious and depressed they felt. Ethan recommends old-fashioned diary writing. Working through the narrative of an experience creates distance from it.
Immersion in nature helps escape toxic chatter.
“There’s a restorative function that it provides when our mind is racing,” Ethan says. “It allows us to just simmer down a little bit, go into sleep mode like on a computer.” Even looking at pictures of natural scenes can help, he contends. In one experiment participants had to give a speech at short notice without notes and then watch videos of streets featuring varying levels of greenery. Those who watched the greenest streets recovered from the stress better.
If you find yourself having to give a speech at short notice, Ethan can help. In an experiment, he gave a group of volunteers five minutes to prepare a speech. Half then had to reflect on their anxiety using the first person and the others were asked to do so using non-first-person pronouns and their own name. Then they gave their speeches. The second group, of distanced self-talkers, reported feeling less shame and embarrassment after giving their speeches, and rather than highlighting nervousness were focused on the fact that nothing of consequence was at stake. Talking about yourself as if you’re Julius Caesar might seem eccentric, but a little distanced self-talk could be worth it if it quells the negative chatter that goes on in your head.
The self-talk test
Decide whether you think the statements below are true or false:
1. Healthy people don’t talk to themselves.
2. Venting emotions reduces harmful mental chatter.
3. Creating order around you creates order in your mind.
4. Partaking in a ritual can ease one’s anxiety.
5. Experiencing awe magnifies people’s worries.
6. We silently talk to ourselves slower than when we talk out loud.
7. Harmful mental chatter influences people’s emotional health, but not their physical health.
8. Young children often talk to themselves out loud to control themselves.
9. Talking to yourself in the third person (using your name) promotes wisdom.
10. Lucky charms and superstitions do not affect people’s ability to cope with negative experiences.
11. Social media can promote or reduce harmful mental chatter depending on how people use it.
12. Our physical environment influences the conversations we have with ourselves.
1. False – the inner voice is a basic feature of the human mind.
2. False – venting leads you to feel closer to the people you talk to, but doesn’t help you to work through problems.
5. False – experiencing awe leads to a “shrinking of the self”.
6. False – we can silently talk to ourselves much faster than we speak.
7. False – chatter has an impact on people’s physical health as well.
10. False – believing that an object or practice can improve how you feel often has that effect.
WORDS BY DAMIAN WHITWORTH / THE TIMES / NEWS LICENSING