How to Silence the Negative Chatter in Our Heads: Psychology Professor Ethan Kross Explains

A cou­ple of weeks ago, the New York Times pub­lished an arti­cle head­lined “How to Stop Rumi­nat­ing.” If your social media feeds are any­thing like mine, you’ve seen it pop up with some fre­quen­cy since then. “Per­haps you spend hours replay­ing a tense con­ver­sa­tion you had with your boss over and over in your head,” writes its author Han­nah Seo. “Maybe you can’t stop think­ing about where things went wrong with an ex dur­ing the weeks and months after a breakup.” The piece’s pop­u­lar­i­ty speaks to the com­mon­ness of these ten­den­cies.

But if “your thoughts are so exces­sive and over­whelm­ing that you can’t seem to stop them,” lead­ing to dis­trac­tion and dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion at work and at home, “you’re prob­a­bly expe­ri­enc­ing rumi­na­tion.” For this broad­er phe­nom­e­non Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Ethan Kross has a more evoca­tive name: chat­ter.

“Your inner voice is your abil­i­ty to silent­ly use lan­guage to reflect on your life,” he explains in the Big Think video above. “Chat­ter refers to the dark side of the inner voice. When we turn our atten­tion inward to make sense of our prob­lems, we don’t end up find­ing solu­tions. We end up rumi­nat­ing, wor­ry­ing, cat­a­stro­phiz­ing.”

Despite being an invalu­able tool for plan­ning, mem­o­ry, and self-con­trol, our inner voice also has a way of turn­ing against us. “It makes it incred­i­bly hard for us to focus,” Kross says, and it can also have “severe neg­a­tive phys­i­cal health effects” when it keeps us per­pet­u­al­ly stress­ing out over long-passed events. “We expe­ri­ence a stres­sor in our life. It then ends, but in our minds, our chat­ter per­pet­u­ates it. We keep think­ing about that event over and over again.” When you’re inside them, such men­tal loops can feel infi­nite, and they could result in per­pet­u­al­ly dire con­se­quences in our per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al lives. To those in need of a way to break free, Kross empha­sizes the pow­er of rit­u­als.

“When you expe­ri­ence chat­ter, you often feel like your thoughts are in con­trol of you,” he says. But “we can com­pen­sate for this feel­ing out of con­trol by cre­at­ing order around us. Rit­u­als are one way to do that.” Per­form­ing cer­tain actions exact­ly the same way every sin­gle time gives you “a sense of order and con­trol that can feel real­ly good when you’re mired in chat­ter.” Kross goes into greater depth on the range of chat­ter-con­trol­ling tools avail­able to us (“dis­tanced-self talk,” for exam­ple, which involves per­ceiv­ing and address­ing the self as if it were some­one) in his book Chat­ter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Mat­ters, and How to Har­ness It. His inter­view with Chase Jarvis above offers a pre­view of its con­tent — and a reminder that, as means of silenc­ing chat­ter go, some­times a pod­cast works as well as any­thing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Secret to High Per­for­mance and Ful­fil­ment: Psy­chol­o­gist Daniel Gole­man Explains the Pow­er of Focus

How Lit­er­a­ture Can Improve Men­tal Health: Take a Free Course Fea­tur­ing Stephen Fry, Ian McK­ellen, Melvyn Bragg & More

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

The Ther­a­peu­tic Ben­e­fits of Ambi­ent Music: Sci­ence Shows How It Eas­es Chron­ic Anx­i­ety, Phys­i­cal Pain, and ICU-Relat­ed Trau­ma

Erich Fromm’s Six Rules of Lis­ten­ing: Learn the Keys to Under­stand­ing Oth­er Peo­ple from the Famed Psy­chol­o­gist

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (15)
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  • Linsay says:

    Why is this psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor encour­ag­ing riu­tal­is­tic behav­iors to man­age rumi­na­tion and anx­i­ety? This is encour­ag­ing OCD and increas­es anx­i­ety in the long term.

  • Max says:

    No it’s not encour­ag­ing OCD. This is like say­ing: “Why is this doc­tor pre­scrib­ing mor­phine against great phys­i­cal pain? This is encour­ag­ing opi­oid addic­tion, and that increas­es pain in the long term”

    Rit­u­al­is­tic behav­iours are not the same as com­pul­sive behav­iours. While it might look like the same, rit­u­als are things that every­one has. My rit­u­al­is­tic behav­iours to deal with anx­i­ety are: do a 3‑mile run 30 mins after wak­ing up, and have the same kind of cafein-free tea every night before bed. I some­times notice a very tiny stres­sor when I can’t do these things, but its also eas­i­ly resolved. In the long run, it’s helped com­bat my anx­i­ety extreme­ly effec­tive­ly.

  • Meto says:

    100 % right

  • Meto says:

    First per­son is right the sec .is wrong

  • Jay says:

    Have you ever expe­ri­enced anx­i­ety? Are you even qual­i­fied to give an opin­ion on the mat­ter? Please, stop.

  • Yes says:

    I just want to leave my body maybe for a day or a week but I des­per­ate­ly wish I could just ditch my life and try being some­one else , because I’m such a dis­ap­point­ment to myself

  • Belinda B Confident says:

    I lis­ten voic­es bypo­la des­or­der

  • Steve says:

    Psy­chol­o­gy, as con­struced and prac­ticed, is the text­book clin­i­cal exam­ple of a Mass For­ma­tion Psy­chosis Nar­cis­sis­tic Pathol­o­gy Par­a­digm.
    This is at min­i­mum by own rules out of the box.
    The Objec­tive Hypocrisy Test reveals the mind of Psy­chol­o­gy, and it’s not good.

  • Hadi kakooei says:

    That was awe­some, I’m work­ing on it

  • Blablacar says:

    Why all these lame mon­ey seek­ing trolls writ­ing in syn­di­cate with each oth­er? Find some­thing lamer to do? Like get­ting some fresh air, damn retards!

  • Abuser 1 says:

    What! Neg­a­tive clut­ter is relat­ed with HBTQ! An open soci­ety is the solu­tion! Big busi­ness man

  • Canceler 1 says:

    We have to can­cel the dis­si­dents. Must be clever about it. The chat clut­ter can be monitored…sorry monitzed in able to make more mon­ey!

  • Greedy chief of militain says:

    You can have the mon­ey. What I seek is con­trol

  • Troll 2 says:

    Okay. I’m in my flat and have the com­put­er there

  • Sunny S says:

    As a psy­chi­atric patient for decades and hav­ing been dis­abled by it for about half that time, I do not rec­om­mend cre­at­ing “rit­u­als” to cope with anx­i­ety. Our brains are incred­i­ble at cre­at­ing asso­ci­a­tions and before long, the anx­i­ety is linked to the rou­tine — or lack there­of. If the sug­ges­tion is actu­al­ly to have some activ­i­ties that anchor your mind to the moment that enable you to get though the worst of the rumi­na­tions, sure. If your rumi­na­tions are more “wow I’m embar­rassed of that con­ver­sa­tion” instead of “there is some inher­ent defect in who I am as a per­son and I can­not move on”, sure. Oth­er than that, I hope this pop psy­chol­o­gy does­n’t reach the peo­ple who strug­gle most.

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