Self Help

Chatter The Voice in Our Head, Why It Mat - Ethan Kross

Author Photo

Matheus Puppe

· 37 min read
  • The author, a psychologist who studies introspection and self-control, received a threatening letter after briefly appearing on TV to discuss his research. This led to obsessive negative thoughts and intense anxiety.

  • Despite attempts to think rationally about the situation and advice from others not to worry, the author was unable to stop the endless loop of distressing inner chatter.

  • For two nights he stood guard over his home with a baseball bat, tortured by his thoughts rather than any real external threat. This affected his appetite, relationship with his wife, and ability to function.

  • As an expert on managing thoughts and emotions, the author recognized the absurdity of his anxious rumination. Yet his scientific knowledge proved useless in quieting his inner frenzy.

  • The author studies the silent conversations people have with themselves and how they powerfully influence behavior and well-being. His experience shows that even experts can become trapped by dysfunctional self-talk.

  • The author became interested in introspection and inner conversations from a young age due to his father’s unconventional parenting style that emphasized “going inside” oneself for answers.

  • In college, the author studied psychology which gave him a framework for understanding introspection. However, research shows introspection can often do more harm than good when dealing with distress.

  • “Chatter” refers to the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that arise from harmful introspection. It can undermine performance, relationships, and wellbeing.

  • New research aims to understand why introspection sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails, and how to steer our inner conversations in a more positive direction.

  • Humans naturally spend a significant portion of time in our “default state” of daydreaming and inner reflection rather than being present.

  • Inner conversations have long fascinated and troubled philosophers and religious thinkers. They can be a source of wisdom but also veer into pathological territory. The key is cultivating more beneficial self-talk.

  • The inner voice is an ongoing stream of verbal thoughts that most people experience in their minds. It allows us to talk to ourselves privately and serves many helpful functions like remembering things, problem-solving, practicing skills, and managing emotions.

  • The inner voice can run very rapidly, with estimates that we talk to ourselves at a rate of 4000 words per minute in our heads. This means our inner monologue is capable of generating the equivalent of hundreds of speeches per day.

  • While often useful, the inner voice can also lead to excessive and unhelpful mental chatter, especially during stressful situations. The stream of thoughts may compulsively rehash past events or anxiously imagine future scenarios.

  • A study by anthropologist Andrew Irving recorded the inner voices of over 100 New Yorkers going about their daily lives. Alongside mundane thoughts were many negative rumination and worries about personal problems or distressing news.

  • The inner voice is a core feature of the human mind that allows rich inner experience but can also torment us. A key challenge is figuring out how to converse with ourselves more effectively to reduce excessive mental chatter.

  • The inner voice allows us to make sense of our experiences, plan for the future, and communicate with ourselves. It is constantly active in our minds.

  • A study found New Yorkers’ inner dialogues dealt with negative content and were often self-focused, yet also constructively processed emotions. Their thoughts hopscotched through time, linking past, present, and future.

  • The inner voice acts as a prolific multitasker, aiding working memory which allows us to function productively. A key component is the phonological loop which manages verbal information.

  • Talking to ourselves facilitates emotional control in childhood. The inner voice aids introspection, problem-solving, and self-regulation. It provides a way to work through upsetting events.

  • While inner speech can fuel rumination, it also allows us to gain distance on our experiences. It is an indispensible cognitive tool that enhanced human evolution and survival.

Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Lev Vygotsky was interested in how children’s self-talk helps develop self-control and emotional regulation. He believed children internalize the instructions and messages of their parents through self-talk, which helps shape their inner voice and self-control abilities.

  • Research shows that richer family communication patterns help children develop inner speech and self-control earlier. Imaginary friends may also promote inner speech development.

  • The inner voice helps us control ourselves by monitoring progress towards goals and allowing us to mentally simulate scenarios when making decisions. Dreams serve a similar function.

  • Our inner voice constructs autobiographical narratives that shape our sense of identity over time. Language helps us “storify” our lives into a continuous thread.

  • Losing one’s inner voice, though rare, can happen in cases of brain damage. Jill Bolte Taylor experienced this when she had a stroke, describing feelings of detachment from her memories, emotions, and sense of boundaries.

  • Inner speech has profound value for constructing our sense of self, emotions, memories and guiding our behavior. Though its loss is very disorienting, some meditative states resemble this mental silence.

  • Rick Ankiel was a talented young baseball pitcher with a bright future ahead of him. But during a playoff game in 2000, he inexplicably started throwing wild pitches.

  • This was highly unusual for Ankiel, and signaled the beginning of a downward spiral. As he tried to continue pitching, his inner critic - which he called “the monster” - grew louder, filling his mind with anxiety, panic, and fear.

  • Ankiel had a traumatic childhood with an abusive father. Baseball was his refuge, but now something was going wrong mentally. His vulnerability and the high-stakes situation overloaded his mind.

  • He kept trying to regain control and rally himself, but the more he fought against the wild pitches, the worse his inner turmoil became. Over the next few innings, he threw five wild pitches, walked four batters, and allowed four runs.

  • Ankiel’s promising career unraveled after this. He lost his ability to pitch accurately under pressure. His story illustrates how destructive our inner voice can become when it turns against us in moments of stress or vulnerability.

  • Rick Ankiel was a talented young MLB pitcher whose career was derailed when he suddenly lost the ability to pitch accurately. In a playoff game in 2000, he threw five wild pitches in one inning. He struggled with wild pitches again in his next start and was soon sent back to the minor leagues, unable to regain his pitching form. He retired from baseball in 2005 at age 25.

  • This phenomenon of suddenly losing an automatized skill can happen to anyone who has spent years mastering a talent, from athletes to surgeons. It occurs when our inner voice overfocuses attention on the individual components of a learned behavior, causing us to “unlink” the separate elements that need to flow together seamlessly.

  • Our executive functions allow us to consciously guide our thoughts and behavior, but they have limited capacity. Trying to multitask or listening to a negative inner voice overloads executive functions, stealing mental resources needed to perform well.

  • Ankiel’s constant verbal focus on the mechanics of pitching shone too bright a spotlight on actions that normally flowed automatically for him. This “paralysis by analysis” dismantled his once-perfect pitching motion by unlinking the coordinated movements. His inner voice betrayed him by overtaxing his executive functions.

  • Chatter (repetitive, anxious thinking) undermines our ability to focus and perform tasks well. Studies show it hurts students’ test performance, artists’ abilities, and business negotiations.

  • When we experience strong negative emotions from chatter, we feel compelled to talk about them with others. But oversharing pushes people away over time.

  • Excessive venting strains relationships. People have a limited tolerance for listening to others’ problems without reciprocity.

  • Ruminating on conflicts makes people more likely to act aggressively against the source of their distress. Chatter can lead to displaced aggression as well.

  • Social media provides a constant opportunity to broadcast our thoughts and listen to others. But it lacks nuanced empathy cues, and immediate sharing deprives us of time to process emotions. This can enable cruelty.

In summary, anxiously oversharing our repetitive inner chatter can damage relationships and social wellbeing over time, both in person and especially online. Allowing time to process emotions is important.

  • Social media allows us to immediately share our thoughts and feelings before we have time to process them rationally. This can lead to increased conflict, hostility, and oversharing.

  • Posting idealized versions of our lives on social media can make us feel better temporarily but leads others to compare themselves negatively.

  • The brain’s reward circuitry activates when we share information about ourselves, providing a “social high.” But the negative consequences often outweigh the temporary benefits.

  • Rejection and emotional pain activate similar brain regions as physical pain. Chronic stress triggered by our negative inner voice can have severe physical health consequences.

  • The stress hormone cortisol released during chronic stress impacts gene expression, effectively reshaping our biology. This can lead to inflammation, cardiovascular disease, impaired immunity, and more.

  • Practices like meditation help quiet our inner voice and reduce cortisol levels and inflammatory gene expression. Kindness and compassion toward ourselves and others can similarly buffer the effects of stress.

  • Tracey, a 17-year-old girl from West Philadelphia, dreams of a better life through education. She gets accepted to a prestigious boarding school program and later meets a former NSA director who encourages her to apply to the NSA’s undergraduate training program.

  • Tracey applies and has to undergo multiple polygraph tests, which she finds very stressful. She worries about being able to control her nerves and inner voice during the interrogations. After failing the first test, she passes the second and gets accepted into the NSA program.

  • The program covers her entire college tuition and gives a monthly stipend, in exchange for spending summers training to be an analyst and committing to work for the NSA afterwards. Tracey sees this as an amazing opportunity to have experiences beyond her underprivileged upbringing.

  • However, the polygraph tests foreshadow the challenges Tracey will face in managing her inner voice and emotions in her future high-stress job with the NSA. Her inner voice is both a liability and an asset as she navigates major life changes.

  • Tracey won a scholarship from the NSA that provided a free education at Harvard but came with many restrictions, including on her studies, relationships, and activities.

  • She felt increasingly isolated and anxious at Harvard because she couldn’t be open about her NSA role and struggled with the demanding engineering curriculum.

  • Failing grades would mean losing her scholarship and owing the government money, which raised her stress and anxiety levels even further.

  • She felt trapped and wondered if she had made a mistake in accepting the NSA scholarship.

  • The author was studying a similar question at the same time - how can people reflect on negative experiences without ruminating? Distraction provides only short-term relief.

  • The author became interested in the idea of using psychological distance/perspective to reflect on problems more effectively instead of avoiding them.

  • Our minds have the ability to visualize ourselves from a distanced perspective, which can help zoom out from our problems and gain perspective.

  • We often replay unpleasant memories or imagine anxiety-producing scenarios from different perspectives - either immersed in the experience from a first-person point of view, or distanced from it as an observer.

  • Studies show that distancing ourselves from negative experiences (becoming a “fly on the wall”) helps us regulate our emotions and inner voice more constructively. It reduces rumination, dampens our fight-or-flight response, and leads to less aggression when provoked.

  • However, distancing also shortens positive emotional experiences. So immersion is better for holding onto joy from good events.

  • Research links distancing to increased wisdom. We are prone to “Solomon’s Paradox” - seeing situations involving others more clearly than our own. For example, Lincoln gave a friend wise romantic advice that he failed to apply to his own life.

  • Wise reasoning involves recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge, seeing the big picture, acknowledging others’ viewpoints. Distancing helps us do this.

  • An example is intellectual humility - recognizing one may be wrong and others may know better, which promotes learning. Distancing enhances intellectual humility.

  • In sum, distancing regulates our emotions adaptively and can make our inner voice wiser. Consciously zooming out gives us greater insight into our experiences.

  • Research shows that gaining psychological distance, such as by imagining a situation is happening to someone else rather than yourself, can help people make wiser decisions. For example, in one study people were more likely to choose the statistically better medical treatment for a fictional patient than for themselves.

  • Distance helps people get beyond information overload and “loss aversion” when making decisions. It also makes people more willing to compromise and tolerate opposing perspectives.

  • Distancing can also improve romantic relationships. Couples taught to mentally distance when discussing conflicts became less unhappy over time.

  • Mental time travel into one’s family history can provide perspective and build positive personal narratives. Tracy’s research into her ancestry helped ease her anxiety at Harvard by providing historical context for her struggles and achievements.

  • Mentally time traveling into one’s future self, or imagining being an observer of one’s present self, can also provide useful distance and wisdom. This can make people more patient, generous, and ethical.

  • Overall, psychological distancing through perspective-taking helps subdue our inner voice, gain wisdom, and craft more constructive life narratives. Our ability to mentally time travel provides many options for distancing.

  • The author, a psychologist who studies controlling the inner voice, received a threatening letter from a stalker. Despite his knowledge of techniques like distancing, he became consumed by fear and panic.

  • In the middle of the night, feeling desperate, he considered hiring a bodyguard to protect him even though this was unrealistic.

  • He suddenly stopped himself by saying his own name in his head, addressing himself as if speaking to someone else. This allowed him to step back and view the situation more objectively.

  • He realized his fears were exaggerated and he was able to calm down, go to sleep, and regain control.

  • Saying his own name had enabled him to subdue his anxious inner voice. This seemed scientifically interesting since talking to oneself as another is often seen as eccentric.

  • After this experience, he became sensitized to noticing other examples of people using their own name or non-first-person pronouns when talking to themselves, such as LeBron James and his college students.

  • This technique seemed to create psychological distance and enable inner chatter to be controlled. The author wondered if this could be useful for others to gain wisdom and self-control.

  • The author noticed examples of people referring to themselves in the third person, such as athletes like LeBron James and public figures like Malala Yousafzai, when discussing stressful situations. This suggested the strategy of using one’s own name rather than “I” may help create emotional distance and self-control.

  • The author and colleagues experimentally tested this idea. Participants had to give a stressful impromptu speech. Those randomly assigned to refer to themselves by name rather than “I” before the speech reported less anxiety and shame afterwards. Independent judges rated their speeches as better.

  • Further studies found additional benefits to this “distanced self-talk” strategy, including wiser reasoning, more rational thinking, and better problem-solving under stress. It seems to work as a type of psychological distancing, similar to a fly-on-the-wall perspective.

  • The research indicates this simple linguistic shift from “I” to one’s own name can help manage difficult emotions and inner chatter in challenging situations. It’s a built-in tool for gaining emotional distance hidden within language itself.

  • Distanced self-talk (referring to oneself by name) helps people take a step back from emotions and relationships to make more objective decisions. Studies show it makes people more willing to report loved ones for crimes.

  • Distanced self-talk works incredibly quickly - it can change emotional brain activity in just 1 second. This suggests it requires minimal cognitive effort.

  • Distanced self-talk allows people to reframe stressful situations as challenges rather than threats. This leads to more positive and encouraging inner dialogue.

  • Studies show distanced self-talk increases challenge-oriented thinking compared to immersed self-talk. It changes how people write about stressful situations.

  • Distanced self-talk produces biological signatures of challenge rather than threat - increased cardiac output paired with decreased vascular resistance. This suggests physical resilience.

  • Even Mister Rogers struggled with self-doubt but used distanced self-talk in a letter to himself to overcome it and get back to work.

  • Overall, distanced self-talk is a fast, easy, and effective way to gain psychological distance from emotions, reframe mindsets, and override unhelpful inner voices.

The author describes experiencing intense negative thoughts and anxiety after receiving a threatening letter. Using his name to refer to himself allowed him to gain emotional distance and decrease his distress. Research by psychologists has shown that using one’s own name or a superhero name helps children and adults cope with stress.

Other forms of “distanced self-talk” also help people manage emotions by framing experiences as universal. For example, Sheryl Sandberg coped with grief after her husband’s death by writing about how “you can give in to the void” rather than using “I.” People often use the universal “you” when making sense of difficulties to convey that their experiences are normal and not unique. This linguistic tool promotes psychological distance.

After using distanced self-talk, the author was able to regain control over his anxious thoughts and return to his normal routine. The distance provided by small shifts in language gives people needed perspective when overwhelmed by negative emotions.

  • In 2008, psychologists Amanda Vicary and R. Chris Fraley studied how students at Northern Illinois University coped after a tragic shooting on campus. They found that while students thought talking with others helped them, it didn’t actually reduce their depression or PTSD symptoms.

  • A similar study after 9/11 found that people who shared their thoughts and feelings more didn’t feel better - in fact, they fared worse than those who didn’t open up as much.

  • These findings align with the work of psychologist Bernard Rimé, who found that talking to others about negative experiences doesn’t help us recover in a meaningful way. This challenges the conventional wisdom that venting emotions is healthy.

  • The idea that talking through emotions is beneficial dates back to Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. Freud also promoted the idea that bringing inner pain into the light leads to a sound mind.

  • As babies, we cry to caregivers to meet our needs. This establishes attachment and patterns of communicating distress. But studies show that as adults, simply talking about emotions often doesn’t help reduce them.

  • While sharing can make us feel closer to others, the ways most people talk and listen often exacerbate negative chatter rather than relieve it. The power of other people to help us manage emotions has limits.

  • We have a need to communicate with others about our experiences, which helps explain why chatter and social interactions are so interconnected. However, the support we get from others often backfires.

  • When we are upset, we tend to prioritize having our emotional needs met (feeling understood, validated) over having our cognitive needs met (getting practical advice/perspective). Similarly, when people try to support us, they focus more on addressing our emotional rather than cognitive needs.

  • This leads to “co-rumination” - rehashing the upsetting situation just makes us more upset. It’s like tossing logs onto an already flaming fire.

  • Effective support integrates both emotional validation and cognitive reframing, like Captain Kirk (emotional) and Spock (logical). This acknowledges feelings but also provides perspective.

  • Research shows people often prefer emotional support in the immediate aftermath of an upsetting event, and cognitive reframing later on. So timing and balance are key.

  • The NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team developed techniques to address both emotional and cognitive needs when talking to people in crisis. Their methods can be applied to everyday conversations.

The key is to combine emotional validation and comfort with practical advice and perspective-taking when supporting others through difficult experiences and chatter.

  • The 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and the 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery featured in Dog Day Afternoon led to the creation of the NYPD Hostage Negotiations Team.

  • Police officer Harvey Schlossberg created the team’s playbook, emphasizing compassion over force and patience in talking down hostage takers.

  • This approach led to better outcomes in hostage situations and was adopted globally, including by the FBI’s Behavioral Change Stairway Model.

  • When supporting others dealing with inner chatter, it’s important to provide emotional validation as well as guide them to practical solutions.

  • Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project provides a powerful example of how strangers’ stories can provide hope and support.

  • Some talk therapy approaches like CBT are effective, but emotional venting alone is not empirically supported.

  • Trying to give unsolicited advice can undermine self-efficacy; “invisible support” where help is provided indirectly works better.

  • Overall, combining emotional and cognitive support, knowing when to provide it, and finding the right sources can help manage inner chatter.

  • In 1963, the Chicago Housing Authority built the Robert Taylor Homes, a huge public housing project on the South Side. It was intended to improve conditions but ended up exacerbating problems like crime and poverty.

  • By the 1980s, the Robert Taylor Homes had become notorious for issues like gang violence and drugs. The grand experiment in urban renewal had failed.

  • Residents were randomly assigned units, so some ended up with apartments facing green courtyards while others looked out on gray cement.

  • In the late 1990s, researcher Ming Kuo realized this presented an opportunity to study whether green views impacted residents’ resilience to stress.

  • Previous research by Roger Ulrich found hospital patients recovering from surgery fared better with views of trees rather than a brick wall. But it was unknown if this applied to inner city life.

  • Kuo was able to conduct a natural experiment at the Robert Taylor Homes given the random assignment of units. She surveyed residents about their views and coping abilities.

  • Kuo found those with green views had better coping abilities even when accounting for income, education, etc. This suggested the physical environment impacts resilience.

  • The Robert Taylor Homes have since been demolished, but Kuo’s study provided early evidence of nature’s psychological benefits in a stressful urban setting.

  • Frances Ming Kuo conducted a study showing that residents of Chicago public housing with more natural views from their apartments had better attention, decision-making, and resilience against life’s challenges. This suggested nature improves mental functioning.

  • Other studies have confirmed benefits of nearby nature, like lower distress, better wellbeing, and health improvements comparable to a $10k raise or being 7 years younger.

  • The Kaplans proposed nature restores mental faculties through “soft fascination” that captures attention effortlessly, allowing voluntary attention used for focus and concentration to recharge.

  • Studies have shown nature walks improve attention, mood, and mental health compared to urban walks. A 2015 Stanford study also found less rumination after a nature walk.

  • These findings suggest being in nature positively influences our inner mental conversations by restoring our capacity for attention and concentration. This helps us better manage stress and rumination.

  • The benefits of nearby nature pose implications for increasingly urbanized societies. Finding ways to integrate nature into cities may be important for mental health. Overall, thoughtfully leveraging our surroundings can help manage our inner voice.

  • Nature provides a “soft fascination” that quiets our inner voice and restores our attention. Even just looking at photos or videos of nature can have this effect.

  • Awe is another experience that quiets the inner voice. Awe makes us feel connected to things larger than ourselves. It can come from experiences in nature, art, music, sports, etc.

  • In a study, combat veterans went on a rafting trip designed to induce awe. The more awe they experienced, the more their PTSD symptoms, stress, and well-being improved, and these benefits lasted after the trip was over.

  • Experiences like awe and nature exposure that diminish the inner voice and sense of self are helpful for controlling rumination. We can seek out more opportunities for these types of experiences to reduce chatter.

  • Awe-inspiring experiences like white water rafting can improve well-being by reducing stress, PTSD, and negative inner chatter while increasing happiness, life satisfaction, belonging, and sense of time.

  • Most awe experiences are uplifting, though some threatening awe experiences can increase negative thoughts.

  • Awe makes people feel smaller and cede control, which shrinks their problems.

  • Tennis player Rafael Nadal engages in rituals like precisely arranging his water bottles to create order and control his inner chatter during matches.

  • Ordering our physical environments can compensate for lack of control and order in our minds.

  • Imposing order externally makes the world seem more predictable and navigable, reducing anxiety.

  • Disadvantaged neighborhoods with more disorder can increase depression.

  • Rituals to order environments are not necessarily pathological but an adaptive way to control inner experiences.

  • Franz Anton Mesmer pioneered a technique called “animal magnetism” in the 1700s, claiming he could channel an invisible energy to heal people. One of his patients was the blind musical prodigy Maria Theresia von Paradis, whose sight was restored during treatment but disappeared again when the sessions ended.

  • Mesmer became very popular in Paris, treating aristocrats and even Marie Antoinette with his magnetism techniques. He would have groups of people surround a tub filled with magnetized water and metal rods, which patients applied to afflicted body parts. Some patients felt improvements, others nothing.

  • King Louis XVI assembled a commission, including Benjamin Franklin, to investigate mesmerism. They concluded the healing effects were not from magnetism but rather the power of the patients’ expectation and belief - essentially a placebo effect.

  • Though dismissed at the time, Mesmer had stumbled upon the very real power of the mind and belief to elicit physical effects in the body. Placebos are not medically inert as long thought, but can have meaningful impacts through suggestion. Research continues to uncover the strength of the mind-body connection unlocked through placebos.

  • Puysegur understood that the benefits Mesmer provided to patients were real, even if animal magnetism wasn’t. However, Mesmer’s sensational story overshadowed Puysegur’s insight about the mind’s role in healing until the mid-20th century.

  • Placebos are part of a long human tradition of imbuing objects with ‘magic’ powers, like lucky charms. Studies show that just believing a placebo will help can produce real benefits, like fewer headaches or improved respiratory symptoms.

  • An experiment found that a saline nasal spray placebo could reduce activity in brain areas related to social pain in people thinking about romantic rejection, like an actual painkiller. Placebos help with conditions involving emotional distress.

  • Placebos work by generating expectations - our brains constantly predict what will happen next to guide our actions. When a doctor says you’ll feel better, it provides information you use to predict your experience, enhancing the placebo effect.

  • The placebo response involves complex brain processes like release of neurotransmitters and activation of reward and threat circuits. But the bottom line is that expectations shape healing via mind-body interactions.

  • While placebos won’t cure major diseases, doctors can ethically harness expectations to help patients feel better. The mind has underestimated healing powers.

  • Features like a doctor’s lab coat or branded vs. generic pills subconsciously influence our health beliefs. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we reflexively expect pills will make us feel better.

  • Placebos work by changing brain activation levels in areas related to pain, pleasure, etc. But they are limited - you can’t just believe your way out of any illness.

  • Usually placebos require deception, but research shows non-deceptive placebos also work. Just teaching people about placebo effects can improve symptoms.

  • Our culture and beliefs shape placebo effects and chatter-fighting practices. Rituals are another tool cultures pass down.

  • Malinowski studied Trobriand Islanders and found their fishing “magic” before dangerous trips was really a ritual that calmed nerves.

  • Rituals are cultural coping devices that change expectations. They transform our sense of control and reduce anxiety.

  • Rituals like mourning rites, pre-exam routines, and pre-game superstitions can help people manage anxiety and negative inner thoughts (chatter).

  • Rituals are different from habits because they involve a specific sequence of actions that is infused with meaning and symbolic significance.

  • Rituals help reduce chatter in several ways: by directing attention away from worries, providing a sense of control and order, connecting us to meaningful values and communities, eliciting awe, and activating the placebo effect.

  • People often unconsciously engage in ritualistic behaviors to help cope with anxiety and achieve goals. For example, socially rejected children may develop repetitive rituals, and the author engaged in cleaning rituals when facing writer’s block.

  • We can deliberately use rituals too, either by creating our own or drawing on meaningful cultural/religious rituals, to minimize inner chatter in stressful situations. The structure and symbolic meaning make rituals uniquely effective at quieting our inner voice.

Here is a summary of the key points about rituals and the inner voice:

  • Rituals like making waffles on Sundays don’t need to come from supernatural forces to be meaningful and helpful. They activate inner tools that help us fight negative thoughts.

  • Culture provides us with many rituals and practices that shape our minds and behavior, often invisibly, like the air we breathe.

  • Understanding the science behind these mental tools raises the question of how to spread this knowledge more widely.

  • The author was confronted with this question by a student who asked why she hadn’t learned these techniques earlier in life.

  • Though painful at times, the inner voice is essential for learning, changing and improving ourselves. We need some negative emotions to warn us of danger and signal the need for change.

  • The challenge is not to eliminate negative states but to prevent them from consuming us. We need tools to turn down the volume when our inner voice gets too loud.

  • In response to his student’s question, the author worked to translate research on emotional regulation into a curriculum to teach students these skills.

  • A pilot study found a “toolbox curriculum” helped diverse students use techniques like journaling and distanced self-talk, with benefits for their health and relationships.

  • Spreading knowledge about managing our inner voice and emotions can help people earlier in life before negative thought patterns become entrenched.

Here is a summary of the key points about managing inner chatter from the book:

The Tools

  • Controlling inner chatter involves using different techniques or “tools” that exist both within us and in our environments. Finding the right set of tools that works for you is a personal journey.

  • The tools can be grouped into three categories: 1) Tools you can implement on your own 2) Tools that leverage relationships 3) Tools involving your environment

Tools You Can Implement on Your Own

  • “Stepping back” from your thoughts to gain distance and perspective is helpful. Techniques for doing this include distanced self-talk, imagining advising a friend, broadening perspective, and reframing experiences as challenges.

  • Talking to yourself using your name or “you” creates psychological distance from your thoughts. This can lead to wiser thinking and less negative emotion.

  • Visualizing your problems as smaller or yourself as a fly on the wall are other distancing techniques. So is mentally time traveling to give yourself advice.

  • Doing rituals and embracing superstitions, even while knowing they are irrational, can help calm the mind through the power of expectation.

Tools Involving Relationships

  • Avoid co-ruminating. Listening without judging, asking questions, and reframing problems can help others without getting caught in rumination.

  • Provide insecure people with wise feedback to bolster their self-belief. But avoid excessive reassurance seeking.

  • Practice empathy online. Don’t do things digitally that you wouldn’t do in person.

Tools Involving Environment

  • Nature exposure boosts attention and awe, calming chatter. Order also reduces clutter in the mind.

  • Leverage placebos and rituals by believing in their power. Harness expectation to tap into self-healing.

  • Design physical spaces and digital platforms to promote focus, empathy, and connection.

Here are some key points on managing your inner voice:

  • Reframe stressful situations as challenges you can handle rather than threats. Remind yourself of past successes.

  • Recognize physical stress responses as helpful adaptations, not sabotage.

  • Use “you” language to normalize experiences and gain perspective.

  • Mentally time travel to gain distance on current distress.

  • Adopt a neutral third party perspective when self-talk fixates on others.

  • Perform personal rituals and use lucky charms to provide comfort.

  • Validate others’ emotional needs and gently broaden perspectives. Don’t force unsolicited advice.

  • For kids, suggest pretending to be a superhero in tough situations.

  • Build a diverse support network to turn to for different life domains.

  • Seek out supportive physical contact from loved ones. Look at photos of loved ones.

  • Perform rituals together for added benefits.

  • Minimize passive social media use to reduce negative comparisons.

The key is to reframe your thinking, gain perspective, normalize the experience, and tap into social support when chatter gets overwhelming. A multifaceted approach works best.

Here are the key points from the acknowledgments and notes sections:

  • The author thanks his father for teaching him to “go inside” and find inner calm, as well as his wife and daughters for their love and support.

  • He expresses gratitude to his agent, editor, writing coach, and other members of the publishing team who helped shape and promote the book.

  • He acknowledges various researchers, colleagues, story sources, funding organizations, and family members who contributed expertise, experiences, and support.

  • The epigraphs at the beginning come from Barack Obama discussing the challenge of internal negative chatter, and comedian Dan Harmon describing his constantly critical inner voice.

  • The notes section contains citations for research studies, quotes, and other source material mentioned in the book.

In summary, the acknowledgments and notes highlight the many people and sources who helped the author research, write, and publish the book, as well as providing attribution for key quotes and facts. They reflect the collaborative effort and input that went into creating the book.

Here is a summary of 10% Happier by Dan Harris:

After having a panic attack on live television, ABC news anchor Dan Harris embarked on a journey to understand the roots of his unhappiness and anxiety. This led him to explore meditation and mindfulness. He was skeptical at first, associating meditation with hippies and mysticism. However, after interviewing many experts, scientists, and regular meditators, Harris eventually came to see how meditation could be extremely beneficial for taming the constant chatter in our minds.

Through his research, Harris learned how our non-stop inner monologue can negatively impact our happiness, health, productivity, and relationships. Much of this chatter is negative and repetitive, leading to stress and suffering. Meditation trains our minds to stay focused in the present moment instead of being lost in rumination about the past and future. While meditation takes practice and is not a quick fix, it can change our relationship to the voice in our heads.

In the end, Harris found a type of mindfulness meditation that worked for him within his busy lifestyle. He came to embrace meditation as a pragmatic tool for reducing stress, without requiring mysticism or abandoning ambition. Harris makes the case that meditation is compatible with mainstream modern values and can lead to what he calls the “10 percent happier” life.

Here is a summary of the key points from the given sources:

  • Worry and prolonged stress can lead to negative effects on health, likely due to sustained physiological arousal. Rumination is a form of repetitive negative thinking linked to anxiety and depression.

  • Spontaneous or uncontrolled repetitive thoughts can be constructive or unconstructive. Constructive repetitive thoughts facilitate problem-solving and adaptive self-reflection. Unconstructive repetitive thoughts like worry and rumination are associated with distress and psychopathology.

  • Inner speech develops in childhood and serves many functions, including self-regulation, rehearsing social interactions, mental simulation, and autobiographical reasoning. Cultural values shape the nature of inner speech.

  • Inner speech and other forms of spontaneous thought like mind-wandering, dreams, and daydreams share neural underpinnings and functional similarities. They allow mental simulation unconstrained by external stimuli.

  • Dreams and daydreams may support threat simulation, memory consolidation, and other adaptive functions. Constructing self-narratives through inner speech and imagination contributes to identity formation.

  • Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who suffered a stroke, lost her ability to engage in inner speech. This caused her to feel disconnected from herself and the outside world. Private inner speech helps us guide our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

  • When inner speech backfires, it can lead to rumination, which involves repetitive, perseverative thinking about one’s problems. This can hog cognitive resources needed for attention and performance.

  • Athlete Rick Ankiel experienced a catastrophic loss of control during high-pressure games after a previous successful season. Attention and performance can suffer when we become overly self-conscious during skilled activities that normally run automatically.

  • Sharing emotions and problems with others through speech can provide relief. But excessive reassurance-seeking and dwelling on problems can fray social relationships. This can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.

  • Online platforms allow people to broadly share emotional content and ruminations. But passive consumption of others’ ruminations can have negative effects on emotional well-being.

  • Passively consuming content on social media (like scrolling through Facebook) can negatively impact emotional wellbeing, whereas actively posting content does not.

  • Empathy and perspective-taking are important for emotional regulation and wellbeing. Venting negative emotions online can irritate others.

  • People tend to present an idealized version of themselves on social media. Comparing oneself to these curated profiles can lead to negative social comparisons and envy.

  • Using social media activates the brain’s reward system, which keeps people coming back despite negative impacts. Social exclusion activates pain centers similarly to physical pain.

  • Emotions and stress can have downstream effects on physical health. Workplace stress costs billions annually. Ruminating can prolong the stress response.

  • Actively using social media to connect with others in a positive way can enhance wellbeing. Self-disclosure and social interaction online activate the brain’s reward system.

The key is to use social media mindfully - avoid passive scrolling that invites social comparison, while actively engaging in prosocial ways. Limiting use can boost wellbeing. Connecting online should supplement in-person interactions.

Here is a summary of the key points from the two articles:

Chronic Stress: Prolonged Physiological Activation and (Un)conscious Perseverative Cognition

  • Chronic stress involves prolonged physiological activation due to repeated or chronic stressors. This includes increased cortisol levels and inflammatory responses.

  • Chronic stress also involves unconscious perseverative cognition - persistent worrying thoughts that the person is not fully aware of. This unconscious worrying maintains physiological activation.

  • Chronic stress can lead to various health problems like heart disease, infections, and accelerated aging.

  • Reducing unconscious perseverative thoughts may help reduce the physiological impacts of chronic stress.

Physiological Concomitants of Perseverative Cognition: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

  • Perseverative cognition refers to the phenomenon where the mind gets “stuck” on negative content or worry. This includes rumination and worry.

  • A meta-analysis of studies found robust evidence that perseverative cognition is associated with greater cortisol output and increased inflammatory responses.

  • The effects were found across different types of perseverative cognition and for both state (short-term) and trait (chronic) perseverative cognition.

  • The physiological effects associated with perseverative cognition may help explain how chronic stress contributes to disease. Reducing perseverative cognition could help alleviate physiological impacts.

In summary, chronic stress and perseverative cognition are linked to prolonged physiological activation that can contribute to various diseases. Reducing unconscious perseverative thoughts and rumination may help ameliorate these effects.

Here is a summary of the key points from the passages:

  • People tend to recall intense negative experiences from a first-person, immersed perspective. However, trauma memories and self-conscious experiences are more often recalled from a detached, third-person perspective.

  • Self-distancing (recalling experiences from a detached perspective) reduces emotional reactivity, dampens brain activity related to negative emotions, and decreases aggression and hostility compared to immersive recall. It can also help people with depression and anxiety.

  • Distancing not only reduces negative emotions but also positive emotions. However, it can have delayed benefits by improving reasoning, decision making, and meaning making.

  • Distancing yourself from a problem by imagining it happening to someone else can increase wise reasoning, as demonstrated by Solomon’s example in the Bible. It can improve medical and political decision making by overcoming biases like loss aversion and information overload.

  • Self-distancing can aid conflict resolution in relationships and help construct positive personal narratives over time. Related techniques like temporal distancing also regulate emotional distress.

Here is a summary of the key points from the three articles:

Bruehlman-Senecal et al. (2016):

  • Taking a distant, abstract perspective on emotional experiences (temporal distancing) can help reduce emotional reactivity and promote well-being.
  • Individual differences in tendency to spontaneously distance predict lower emotional reactivity and better well-being.

Ahmed (2018):

  • Temporal distancing can help adolescents regulate emotions, especially those prone to reactive aggression.
  • Distancing reduced anger and aggression after a social exclusion experience.

Huynh et al. (2016):

  • Temporal distancing facilitates wise reasoning in conflicts with close others.
  • Distancing led to focusing on the long-term value of relationships rather than immediate frustration.

In summary, across different contexts and populations, temporal distancing has been found to reduce emotional reactivity, aggression, and short-sightedness, while promoting wisdom, well-being, and relationship values. The capacity to spontaneously distance predicts greater resilience. Expressive writing may facilitate distancing.

Here is a summary of the key points from the chapter:

  • After traumatic events like school shootings, sharing emotions and receiving emotional support from others is not always beneficial for recovery. Research on events like 9/11 and Virginia Tech shootings found that emotional sharing predicted worse mental health outcomes.

  • Expressing emotions after trauma has historically been encouraged as a healing catharsis based on Freudian theory. However, research does not support the catharsis theory.

  • Sharing emotions is rooted in childhood attachment needs. People have an innate “tend and befriend” instinct to seek out social support when distressed.

  • When sharing emotions, people prioritize feeling emotional relief over cognitive reappraisal. Listeners often miss cues that the sharer needs advice.

  • Co-rumination, excessively discussing problems, is linked to worse mental health outcomes. The inner voice can spread negative thinking like a virus to others.

  • The most helpful conversations involve cognitive reappraisal, distances, and advice that challenges unhelpful thoughts. People often prefer emotional comfort to cognitive reframe in the moment, but reframes have better long-term effects.

  • Other people’s emotions and actions can profoundly influence our own due to emotional contagion. We unconsciously mimic others’ postures, voices, and facial expressions, which triggers emotional synchrony.

  • Behavior is shaped by observation of others’ actions, as shown in experiments on conformity. People follow group behavior even when it contradicts their own senses.

  • The 1960s Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago epitomized poor urban planning and architecture, negatively impacting residents’ mental health. Studies show nature exposure improves health.

  • The Kaplans introduced attention restoration theory - nature engages involuntary attention, giving directed voluntary attention a chance to replenish. Studies confirm nature’s cognitive benefits.

  • Nature reduces rumination and depression, improves cognition and mental health, even in urban settings. Childhood green space predicts lower psychiatric disorders into adulthood.

  • Urban design matters for health. Nature in cities provides respite, fosters social cohesion. Accessible green spaces can be an equalizing health resource.

Here is a summary of the key points from the article “The Benefits of Nature Experience: Improved Affect and Cognition”:

  • The article examined a study that had people take a walk in nature versus an urban environment. Those who walked in nature showed improved rumination (repetitive negative thinking), anxiety, positive emotions, and working memory compared to those who walked in an urban setting.

  • Interacting with green spaces has been shown to improve mood, though people tend to underestimate this effect.

  • With increasing urbanization, finding ways to experience nature and its benefits is becoming more important. Even brief nature exposure like watching videos of natural scenes can provide cognitive benefits.

  • Longer nature exposure provides greater benefits. Apps like ReTUNE aim to help people access even small doses of nature in cities.

  • Nature elicits the positive emotion of awe, which reduces rumination, expands time perception, enhances well-being, and promotes prosociality. Awe shifts focus away from the self/individual concerns.

  • Other research suggests awe from nature can reduce inflammation and promote wisdom. However, some forms of awe can also elicit threat.

  • Overall, interacting with nature provides cognitive, emotional, social, and health benefits. Seeking out these experiences, even in small ways, can be a pathway to greater well-being.

Here is a summary of the key points from the excerpt “The Appeal of a Structured World”:

  • Humans have a psychological need for structure, order, and meaning in the world. This motivates many behaviors and thought processes.

  • When people lack control or certainty, they perceive more illusory patterns and impose structure on randomness. This provides comfort.

  • Boundaries, routines, and predictable environments are appealing because they provide coherence. Reading about orderly worlds also reduces anxiety.

  • Disadvantaged neighborhoods with more disorder cause more depression. But not everyone seeks order - like those with OCD.

  • Conspiracy theories flourish when people lack control. Imposing structure on randomness helps compensate.

  • Placebos leverage the brain’s prediction machinery. Believing a treatment will help makes it so, activating reward circuits. This improves symptoms in many conditions.

  • The placebo effect demonstrates that expectations shape experience. Preconceptions fortify beliefs and make placebos robust and long-lasting.

  • Placebo responses are seen across species. They engage brain systems modulating pain, emotion, and physiology. Marketing can harness this.

In summary, the human attraction to order and meaning drives behaviors and placebo responses that impose structure on the world. Beliefs shape experience.

Here is a summary of the key points about the psychology of rituals and their benefits from Chatter by Ethan Kross:

  • Rituals are symbolic behaviors that are rigidly sequenced and repetitively performed. They are found across human cultures and serve important psychological functions.

  • Performing rituals reduces anxiety and helps people cope with stressful situations. Rituals also help people achieve goals by clarifying their motivations and promoting self-discipline.

  • Specific examples of beneficial rituals include prayer, meditation, repeating mantras, and athletes’ pre-performance routines.

  • Rituals work in part by providing a sense of control and order amid uncertainty. The symbolic nature of rituals also gives them psychological power.

  • Rituals should be thoughtfully designed and used in moderation. Over-ritualizing can be problematic, but rituals can be a useful tool when employed flexibly.

The key idea is that thoughtfully designed and moderately practiced rituals can provide real psychological benefits by reducing anxiety, promoting self-control, and clarifying goals and motivations. But rituals shouldn’t be over-used or adhered to rigidly in all situations.

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