How to look past the chatter and manage your inner voice
It can be tough to manage your inner voice.
By Emma Nobel and Gail Boserio
That little critic in your head can help you wade through some of life’s biggest challenges — but it can also be a cruel tormentor living rent-free in your mind.
Professor Ethan Kross, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, has spent the last 20 years researching how we evolved to live with this internal dialogue.
He says it can be a force for good, provided we consider “what we can do to harness our voice rather than get controlled by it in the wrong ways”.
So how can you live with the inner critic in your head and not let its chatter take over?
Your internal guide
Professor Kross says the internal voice is a product of human evolution, one that first emerges for young children as they begin to navigate and make sense of their environment.
Then as we mature it becomes our foremost tool for solving problems and ordering our internal and external world.
Professor Kross describes this use of language as “a superpower that we possess [that] distinguishes us from other species”.
This “Swiss Army Knife of the mind,” Professor Kross tells RN’s Late Night Live, “plays a role in in what we call our working memory system, which is a system of the mind that all of us possess, which is it helps us keep information active”.
To memorise a phone number, you would use your inner voice to repeat it in your head.
“It helps us control ourselves, like when we coach ourselves through a problem. It also helps us plan and simulate for the future,” he says.
Perth-based clinical psychologist Dr Vicky Tan says this internal guide has evolved with you to keep you safe and help you work out potential dangers.
“If you think of hunter-gatherer days, if a wild animal has come to your camp, once the animal has left, your brain or advisor will go, what should we do next? Is this going to happen again? What if there’s more wild animals? What if more people get hurt? What should we do?”
It’s this barrage of questions that would help you to prepare for the next time a wild animal invades your camp or help you to avoid the threat entirely.
As well as external problems, Dr Tan says our inner voice critiques problems within us.
“That’s because if we were in a group back then, our chances of survival without that group would not be very high.”
This reliance on others, Dr Tan says, mean we’re also likely to ask ourselves whether we fit in, and whether we’re liked by other members of the group.
She says these questions help to explain why it’s easy for that internal voice to start fixating on the negative.
“When we think about the survival value of this stuff, then it makes sense that our brain is negatively biased because there is a huge benefit from thinking that something’s going to get us,” she says.
We’re more likely to stew over a threatening situation, or a stressful encounter, rather than ruminating about a positive memory — a special family dinner, a picturesque sunset stroll with a partner — because the latter doesn’t have a lot of survival value.
“Our brains are more wired for survival rather than for happiness.”
As you turn your attention inward, Professor Kross says you can get stuck and experience the downside of your inner critic’s negativity: chatter.
That’s when that little voice goes into overdrive, wreaking havoc on your health.
When talk becomes chatter
As well as playing a contributing role in depression and anxiety, Professor Kross says chatter can contribute to physical disease.
“We often think of stress as a killer, but in fact experiencing stress is not a bad thing,” he says.
“We have this system that quickly allows us to mobilize in response to a threat in front of us — that’s what stress does.”
Stress becomes harmful, he says, when a person experiences a stress response which remains chronically active.
“That’s when our body begins to experience wear and tear and chatter plays a key role in keeping our stress experiences alive,” he says.
He says chatter goes wrong when it becomes an emotional echo chamber.
“We experience stress, and then something bad happens,” he says.
“Then we don’t just have that experience, and move on with our lives, we then keep on replaying, and reactivating those experiences over and over and over again.
“Again, that inner voice is a tool, the key is to prevent it from slipping into the harmful territory of chatter.”
When it veers into negativity, chatter can even stall careers.
Reconciling with your critic
Dr Tan says it’s important to normalise your inner voice but that by the time clients come to see her, their self-talk has already made them feel and act in certain ways.
“The way they then act on those things has prevented them from getting to the life that they want to have,” she says.
She explains that a lot of the work she does with clients involves looking for patterns that develop in their negative thinking and recognising how it makes them feel.
“I always advise people, when I’m working with them to start noticing patterns, like what does your mind tend to say to you? What situations does it come up in? And how do you start to feel like in your body, and emotionally when that happens, and where do people think they learned that from?”
“Imagine if you’re going up against someone in a game or sport, it’s really helpful to be able to spot the other team’s tactics so that you can respond in a helpful way.”
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