A Psychologist's 3 Tools To Quiet The Negative Voice Inside Your Head
It happens to us all at some point: You experience a stressful event or face a problem, and you become caught up in a whirlwind of negative self-talk, or what award-winning psychologist Ethan Kross, Ph.D., calls "chatter."
Of course, the oft-stated advice to just stay positive! doesn't really help. In most cases, it only makes those dark thoughts stronger. So how can you actually conquer the negative voice inside your head? Well, Kross offers a few actionable tools to escape that destructive thought loop. In fact, the very title of his new book is Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How To Harness It.
Here, Kross offers some of his go-to strategies:
The first thing to know about chatter, says Kross, is that it causes you to narrowly zoom in on the problem at hand. "You keep replaying it and think, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do? What does this mean?'" he explains. That's why Kross recommends implementing "self-distancing" tools to help you escape that tunnel-vision mindset. The first tool: distant self-talk, or giving yourself advice in the third person.
"Try to work through a problem using your own name," he says. "It is much easier for us to give advice to other people than to ourselves when we are experiencing chatter. And distant self-talk uses language to shift your perspective and talk to yourself more similarly to how you would communicate with someone else that you care about." That way, you can effectively work through a problem without berating yourself in the process.
Another distancing tool is what Kross calls "temporal distancing" or "mental time travel." Meaning: Think about how you're going to feel about the problem a week, month, or year from now. Will it still hold the same amount of brain space?
"When chatter takes hold, it often feels like everything is wrapped up in this experience and you're never going to break free," says Kross. When in reality, these negative experiences ultimately fade with time. "What this strategy does is reminds us of this phenomenon right in the heat of the moment. It highlights the instability of what you're going through," he explains.
For example, when Kross wakes up in the middle of the night feeling worry or overwhelm (a very common experience), he will ask himself: Ethan, how are you going to feel about this tomorrow morning? "It's always better in the morning," he says, and by telling yourself that what you're feeling is temporary, it takes the power away from those negative thoughts in the moment. "It gives you hope that your circumstances are going to improve, and hope can be a powerful antidote to chatter," Kross adds.
Finally, Kross says rituals are a powerful chatter-fighting tool. The specific ritual varies from person to person—some, like Kross, like to organize and clean; others prefer to garden or go for a walk—but the key is to engage in something that requires your full attention.
"[Rituals] provide us with a sense of order and control, which is often lacking when we experience chatter," he says. "A ritual is under your control…it gives you a sense of agency." Plus, focusing on the ritual takes your attention away from the chatter, which can keep those feelings from dominating your psyche. In fact, research has shown that stress can result in ritualized behavior1, such as repetitive movements (like cleaning).
"I clean up and organize, I put things away…I go and actually clean up my kid's room sometimes," Kross recounts. "That's giving me this sense of agency and control, which I lack when I'm experiencing chatter." Great timing for spring cleaning season!
Your inner voice is a powerful force, and it can really affect your mood and overall well-being. However, forcing yourself to stay positive often has the opposite effect; rather, try these tools whenever you're caught within a negative thought loop. According to Kross, they not only help you stay kinder to yourself but also solve a problem even faster.