What were you thinking about just a moment ago? Or this morning, as you made a cup of coffee and anticipated the day ahead?
Perhaps you were reminding yourself to send an important email. It’s possible that your mind was already engaged in an upcoming work task. Or maybe you were thinking, rather hopelessly, that the day ahead is destined to overwhelm you before it’s even happened?
Whatever your inner voice was telling you in the moment, it’s likely you haven’t paid much attention to it since, but studies have found that the contents of our inner chatter isn’t just innocent white noise; it can have a profound effect on our wellbeing, impacting everything from our relationships, health, productivity and overall life satisfaction.
Ethan Kross is an award-winning experimental psychologist and the director of the Emotion and Self Control Lab at Michigan University, an institution he founded 20 years ago to study the influence our internal dialogues can have on our behaviour. He’s spent his entire professional career researching these conversations — what they are, why we have them, and how they can be harnessed to make people happier, healthier, and more productive.
Through rigorous scientific research, his team haven’t just linked negative self-talk with poor health, but have identified a way to ‘pick the locks’ of our brain to manipulate the language of our own voices, the contents of which he has just published in a new, eye-opening book called Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (Ebury, £20)
Why Self-Talk Matters
“Our inner voice is our ability to silently use language to reflect on our lives, and it’s something that’s fascinating because it’s completely unique to humans,” Kross explains, speaking to me on Zoom from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“It can serve us well in many circumstances: it helps us to solve problems, plan for the future and can create a sense of who we are,” he notes, referring to the type of positive self-talk that sees us blissfully daydreaming about impressing on a first date or nailing an upcoming work presentation without any hiccups.
A lot of people fall back on language-based chatter to help organise and focus their thoughts, but in some cases, Kross says that we can “get into trouble” when we rely on this tool to process negative experiences or trauma.
“When we face a challenge in life, we’ll often turn inward to try to make sense of the problem and find a solution.” Given that humans tend to sway towards self-doubt and depreciation though, things can quickly go awry: “Essentially we risk getting into a negative thought-loop, or what I like to call ‘chatter’.”
Negative thought-loops, he says, are “when you’re trying to work on a problem, but you’re not making progress, so you can’t stop thinking about it over and over again.” Think of it as those harried thoughts that keep us clock-watching at 3am or the paranoia that something inexplicably bad is going to happen. Left to multiply, they can quickly lead to chronic stress and burnout.
In recent years, a growing body of new research has demonstrated that when we experience distress, engaging in introspection — though completely natural — often does significantly more harm than good. A 2014 study linked rumination with an increased risk of anxiety and depression, and given that the average human talks to themselves at a rate equivalent to 4,000 words per minute, Kross believes that your inner critic can soon become your biggest troll.
Finding The ‘Off’ Switch
So does this mean that we’re better off finding a way to live without our internal discourse? Not exactly. Given that Kross believes it’s our mind’s greatest tool, we shouldn’t see it as an enemy: “It’s not about silencing or getting rid of your inner voice. Considering the amazing things it does for us, I think that would be a harmful position to take,” he says.
Plenty of research has found that athletes who use positive self-talk as a cognitive technique enhance their performance, and Kross even notes that LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, talks about himself in the third person to mentally communicate with his inner voice during moments of high pressure.
It’s also a huge part of how we experience the world. In his book, Kross recounts the story of a Massachusetts neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke in 1994 and lost the brain’s linguistic machinery that allowed her to internally think in words and imagery. Describing it as “incredibly debilitating”, he describes how, for the first time in her life, she felt completely alone, without even her thoughts to comfort her.
For all the negative things our mind might be able to say about us, we can all agree that a life without memories, feelings and or introspection sounds pretty miserable. Plus, Kross says that our inner voice is what makes us all unique and interesting, shaping our personality, creativity and sense of self.
“In this way, it’s really not about silencing your inner voice,” he stresses. “It’s about freeing it up to work for you rather than against you.”
Flipping The Narrative
Talking to ourselves with kindness should be something we all practise — but it can be super tricky to start if you’ve spent your life feeling like your best is never good enough.
Kross and his team have identified 26 tools that can help to coach your mindset. “The key thing is that there’s no single tool you can use to change chatter; it’s all about finding the right blend of multiple tools that work for you,” he explains.
He organises them into three sections: tools you can implement on your own, tools that leverage your relationships with others, and tools that involve your environment.
“In terms of the former, a lot of them involve this idea of ‘self-distance’,” says Kross, whose studies on the mind have noted that when you’re soaked in chatter, you tend to zoom in on the problem and hyper-focus.
“To combat this, you could try using your name and the second-person ‘you’ to refer to yourself,” he notes, touching on the techniques employed by LeBron James. Doing so, he says, is linked with less activation in brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress.
“Another popular distancing strategy is something called ‘mental time travel’ – when you’re dealing with an acute stressor, imagine how you’ll feel once it’s over in the future.” This can be useful for making it clear that what’s stressing you out is temporary, and will eventually pass.
Then there’s tools that involve friends, family and therapists. “Talking to other people can be an effective art, but you want to find the right people to talk to,” warns Kross. “Other people can powerfully influence our beliefs, including our expectations about how effectively we can deal with chatter and how long it will last.”
Daily rituals, placebos and habits are another key piece to the puzzle. Kross says that something as simple as creating order in your home by getting rid of clutter can give your brain the signals that things are more under control than they really are.
His lab studies have also found that less obvious factors like increasing your exposure to green spaces, prioritising physical touch, minimising passive social media use and even looking at photos of loved ones can all be helpful tools for boosting inner optimism.
The positive thing about chatter, Kross assures, is that its negative effects are entirely preventable — and the power is in your hands to regulate the conversations in your head. The more you practise, the easier it gets, and while it might feel a bit strange at first, it can be incredibly liberating to finally be free of a lifetime of negative noise.