A neuroscientist explains how to curb unhelpful thoughts
Did you make your New Year’s resolutions?
I hope you put “cognitive reappraisal” on the list. Psychologists use this term to refer to the practice of replacing negative thoughts with ones that are both more positive and true. People who control their self-talk in this manner have better mental health, more life satisfaction, and even better-functioning hearts, research shows. Experts say the technique, which is central to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is an important skill to master during difficult times. The good news is that you can do it at home.
Ethan Kross is an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist who specializes in emotion regulation. He is a professor of psychology and management at the University of Michigan and director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory, where he studies the science of introspection, or the silent conversations people have with themselves. He has a new book coming out this month called “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It.”
Here are edited excerpts from my conversation with Dr. Kross.
Does everyone talk to themselves?
Dr. Kross: Yes. There are lots of ways we use language internally. We use it to keep things fresh in our heads, like repeating a phone number. We try to simulate what we are planning to say, like when we go on an interview or a date. We talk to ourselves when we’re trying to control ourselves or when we are trying to solve a problem. When we are doing something difficult we mentally walk ourselves through the steps we need to take.
Self-talk helps us to author the stories of our life, to capture stories that explain what we have gone through. Even if our self-talk is negative, that doesn’t always mean it’s bad. We can learn things from painful experiences that help us grow and improve.
How much time do we spend in self-talk?
We spend between a third and a half of our waking hours not focused on the present. And engaging in nonverbal reasoning, or talking to ourselves silently, is a significant portion of that.
Inner speech can take a compressed form, which allows our words to flow at a rapid pace. One study estimated that people can think to themselves at a rate that is equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per-minute out loud. A contemporary State of the Union address is about 6,000 words and can last over an hour. So you are getting the same verbal punch thinking to yourself for about a-minute-and-a-half as you would if you listened to an entire State of the Union address.
But sometimes self-talk can sabotage us?
Unfortunately, sometimes we go inside and verbally introspect hoping to find an answer to our problems, but we end up making the problems worse. We worry, ruminate or catastrophize. We end up getting stuck and start spinning in negativity. And that is what I call “chatter.”
Chatter can sabotage us by undermining our ability to think clearly and perform well. It can also interfere with our relationships, because it can lead us to push people we care about away. And it can impact our physical health.
Do tough times make our negative chatter worse?
This is the chatter event of the century. Political instability. A once-in-a-hundred-years virus that is causing us to not socialize directly with others. Tribalism. Civic unrest. Political divisiveness. Unemployment. A shaky economy. We don’t have a lot of control or certainty right now, and when we lose those qualities we try to regain them. We typically go inside and become introspective to do that.
Can other people make our self-talk worse?
We often want to talk about our emotions or share our feelings with others, to get help and improve the way we feel. But some people just help us keep the chatter active. We need help to broaden our perspective. Yet they get us to relive that event over and over. This is co-rumination, a vent session.
I am very deliberate in who I go to for help when I am experiencing chatter. I think carefully if this person is just there to hear me talk or can give me advice or help me put the experience in perspective.
Let’s talk about tools to control chatter. How can broadening our perspective help?
When we experience chatter we narrowly focus on our problem. What we want to do is zoom out. Think about our experience as something that many people deal with. Think about other people who have experienced something similar and have endured it.
One of my go-to techniques is to think about the 1918 flu pandemic. We got through it and endured and excelled and we will do it again. Doing this is empowering. It gives hope.
Tell me how to use “distanced self-talk.”
There is a lot of research that shows we are much better at advising other people than ourselves. So it can help to think of yourself as if you are someone else. One way to do this is to use “distanced self talk” and coach yourself as if you were advising a friend. Use your own name. “Ethan, here is how you do this.” Many people do this intuitively without knowing why.
Does it help to reframe your experience as a challenge?
Yes. It can be as simple as telling yourself: “I can do this.”
You can also reinterpret your body’s response to chatter. The next time you feel your stomach turning in knots before a big presentation, rather than interpreting that as a cue that you can’t perform, think of it as a signal that you are rising to the occasion.
You write that rituals can be helpful. How?
Rituals can provide us with a sense of order. They can help direct our attention away from the problem.
You could even create your own ritual, such as before you give a talk. For example, remind yourself of advice you’ve received by someone you value, take three deep breaths and clench and unclench your fists twice.
How does our environment affect our self-talk?
People crave a sense of order and control. But when we are experiencing chatter, our thoughts are spinning. You can compensate for the lack of order in your head by creating order around you. By organizing your space. Cleaning the kitchen. Tidying up the bedroom. Going for a walk in nature can help clear your mind.
One of my favorite topics is awe. How can experiencing awe help us control our negative thoughts?
We experience awe when we are in the presence of something vast that we have trouble explaining. Some people get it from religious experiences. Others from looking at the sky or at an incredible piece of art or by attending an amazing concert. When we experience chatter we are narrowly focused on our problems. Experiencing awe shows us how much broader the universe is. And that puts things into perspective pretty significantly.
By Elizabeth Bernstein