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:

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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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