Mindfulness is everywhere. Mantras adorn everything from food cartons to t-shirts, while office culture has started borrowing from yoga teachers to bring these techniques into the workplace. It is a billion-dollar industry hallmarked by pleasant phrases and nice ideas: Empty your mind. Focus on the present. Quiet the voice in your head. Respect your inner child.
When adversity strikes, humans tend to turn inward to work through the problem. But if we don’t quickly find a solution, our thought patterns can go awry, creating a negative feedback loop where one confusing thought leads to another and so on like a nightmare spiral staircase leading you down the brain’s darker paths.
This distinct and sometimes destabilizing phenomenon is called chatter. Chatter undermines our work performance, causes friction in relationships, and jeopardizes our mental and physical health. But there is a better way.
What is brain chatter?
“A lot of the time, our inner voice serves us well; we can work through a problem and move on,” Ethan Kross tells Inverse. “If we find that we access that inner voice and we start getting stuck, it turns into chatter.”
Kross is a psychologist and a professor at the University of Michigan who studies emotions and self-control. He is also the author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.
Chatter, Kross explains, arises most often when you find yourself perseverating on a problem. “You can't stop thinking about a problem and the way you're thinking about it isn't improving the way that you actually feel and doesn't allow you to move on with your life,” Kross says.
Common and maddening, chatter isn’t unstoppable. Kross has discovered simple techniques that can help you master your inner voice and keep chatter at bay.
Is mental chatter bad for you?
On any given day, people have approximately 6,000 individual thoughts. This human ability to introspect is a crucial evolutionary advantage, enabling people to process complex information, better store memories, and make split-second decisions.
“Our minds evolved to travel in time — to be able to reflect on the past or anticipate the future,” Kross says. “The ability to do that flexibly is a remarkable asset of the human condition.”
These thought patterns make up what some people, including Kross, call the “inner voice.”
This silent internal dialogue is vitally important to our ability to problem solve, cultivate a sense of self, and understand our place in the world. But our inner coach can become our inner critic. This toxicity is perhaps most apparent in situations where we find ourselves up at 2:00 am ruminating on an awkward run-in, for example, or unable to focus on the task at hand because we’re mulling over a life decision.
“You're worrying, you're ruminating, you're catastrophizing, and the key is you really are turning a problem over and over and over,” Kross explains. “But you're not making any progress towards solving it.”
Chronic and persistent chatter — also known as repetitive negative thinking — has been linked to anxiety and depression, as well as the tendency to experience unwanted intrusive thoughts or have low levels of mindfulness.
“Chatter consumes our attention,” Kross says, making it difficult to think and perform.
Chatter isn’t only an internal problem. It can also harm our relationships by causing us to displace negative emotions onto others, or simply, overwhelm people with our outward negativity.
While it’s often a natural impulse to vent to others when we’re stuck in a chatter loop, doing so doesn’t always deliver the relief we seek. Talking about our thought spirals with a friend can become external continuations of our internal fulminations.
Chatter can drive stress, and that puts our physical health at stake. Chronic stress can suppress the immune system, increase the risk of medical conditions like diabetes, stomach ulcers, heart disease, and worse.
How to tame your inner voice
There’s no magic bullet that will quell chatter when it bubbles up every time, Kross says. But, there are straightforward actions you can take to mitigate the phenomenon.
“One of the reasons why chatter feels so bad is it's all-consuming and you feel trapped,” Kross explains. “You're not in control and just zooming out to recognize that, as bad as it is, you're gonna feel better tomorrow or next week. That gives hope, which is really powerful.”
Every individual can develop a personal “cocktail of tools,” Kross adds. For anyone feeling stuck in a negative thought loop, Kross recommends trying the following evidence-based tricks:
4. Broaden your perspective
“Chatter zooms us in on the problem and makes it hard for us to think rationally or objectively,” Kross says. To reset our perspective, Kross suggests giving yourself advice as if you were a friend or colleague, or using “distanced self-talk.” Speak to yourself (out loud or in your head) using a second or third person pronoun to coach yourself through a situation or problem.
3. Think long-term
One of the best ways to cut through chatter is to use “temporal distancing.” Imagine whether a situation or issue at hand will still bother you in a month, year or decade. Typically, the answer is no, and this future forecasting can put problems in context, reminding you that most issues are temporary even if they feel permanent.
2. Reorient your surroundings.
When you can’t stop spiraling, take a walk outside, clean your home, work out, or switch activities. Sometimes the best things is to distract yourself — then refocus.
1. Check-in with a chatter buddy.
Even though it can feel good in the moment, venting sessions don’t often lead to concrete solutions. Instead of spewing your thoughts like a firehose to each person you encounter, consult a few trusted buddies who can help broaden your perspective.
Importantly, remember you aren’t alone in experiencing chatter however maddening it may be.
“Welcome to the human condition,” Kross says.
“Just because you experienced chatter doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you,” Kross says. “To the contrary, I'd argue that means you're doing just fine as a human.”