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.

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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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