Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It

Here are some excerpts from this 2021 book:

* The reason rituals are so effective at helping us manage our inner voices is that they’re a chatter-reducing cocktail that influences us through several avenues. For one, they direct our attention away from what’s bothering us; the demands they place on working memory to carry out the tasks of the ritual leave little room for anxiety and negative manifestations of the inner voice. This might explain why pregame rituals abound in sports, providing a distraction at the most anxiety-filled moment.
Many rituals also provide us with a sense of order, because we perform behaviors we can control. For example, we can’t control what will happen to our children throughout their lives, and we can protect them only to a limited degree, which is a source of chatter for many parents. But when they are born, we can baptize them or perform any other of a variety of birth rituals that provide us with an illusion of control.
Because rituals are infused with meaning, and often connect to purposes or powers that transcend our individual concerns, they also make us feel connected to important values and communities, which fulfill our emotional needs and serve as a hedge against isolation. This symbolic feature of rituals also often furnishes us with awe, which broadens our perspective in ways that minimize how preoccupied we are with our concerns. Of course, rituals also frequently activate the placebo mechanism: If we believe they will aid us, then they do.

* This organic emergence of rituals is seemingly a product of the brain’s remarkable ability to monitor whether we are achieving our desired goals —for our purposes, the goal of avoiding an inner voice that turns painfully negative. According to many influential theories, your brain is set up like a thermostat to detect when discrepancies emerge between your current and your desired end states. When a discrepancy is registered, that signals us to act to bring the temperature down. And engaging in rituals is one way that people can do this.

* Culture is often compared to the invisible air we breathe, and much of what we inhale are the beliefs and practices that shape our minds and behavior. You can even think of culture as a system for delivering tools to help people combat chatter.

* As much as it can hurt, the ability to experience fear, anxiety, anger, and other forms of distress is quite useful in small doses . They mobilize us to respond effectively to changes in our environments. Which is to say, a lot of the time the inner voice is valuable not in spite of the pain it causes us but because of it.
We experience pain for a reason. It warns us of danger, signaling us to take action. This process provides us with a tremendous survival advantage. In fact, each year a small number of people are born with a genetic mutation that makes it impossible for them to feel pain . They usually end up dying young as a result.

* You wouldn’t want to live a life without an inner voice that upsets you some of the time. It would be like braving the sea in a boat with no rudder.
The challenge isn’t to avoid negative states altogether. It’s to not let them consume you.

* Imposing order on our surroundings likewise can be comforting and allow us to feel better, think more clearly, and perform at higher levels. Then there are our beliefs, whose malleability can work to our advantage.

* while creating a calming distance between our thoughts and our experiences can be useful when chatter strikes, when it comes to joy, doing the opposite—immersing ourselves in life’s most cherished moments—helps us savor them.

* Tools You Can Implement on Your Own
The ability to “step back” from the echo chamber of our own minds so we can adopt a broader, calmer, and more objective perspective is an important tool for combating chatter. Many of the techniques reviewed in this section help people do this, although some—like performing rituals and embracing superstitions—work via other pathways.
1 Use distanced self-talk. One way to create distance when you’re experiencing chatter involves language. When you’re trying to work through a difficult experience, use your name and the second-person “you” to refer to yourself. Doing so is linked with less activation in brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress, wiser thinking, thinking, and less negative emotion.
2 Imagine advising a friend. Another way to think about your experience from a distanced perspective is to imagine what you would say to a friend experiencing the same problem as you. Think about the advice you’d give that person, and then apply it to yourself.
3 Broaden your perspective. Chatter involves narrowly focusing on the problems we’re experiencing. A natural antidote to this involves broadening our perspective. To do this, think about how the experience you’re worrying about compares with other adverse events you (or others) have endured, how it fits into the broader scheme of your life and the world, and/or how other people you admire would respond to the same situation.
4 Reframe your experience as a challenge. A theme of this book is that you possess the ability to change the way you think about your experiences. Chatter is often triggered when we interpret a situation as a threat—something we can’t manage. To aid your inner voice, reinterpret the situation as a challenge that you can handle, for example, by reminding yourself of how you’ve succeeded in similar situations in the past, or by using distanced self-talk.

Tools for Receiving Chatter Support
1 Build a board of advisers. Finding the right people to talk to, those who are skilled at satisfying both your emotional and your cognitive needs, is the first step to leveraging the power of others. Depending on the domain in which you’re experiencing chatter, different people will be uniquely equipped to do this. While a colleague may be skilled at advising you on work problems, your partner may be better suited to advising you on interpersonal dilemmas. The more people you have to turn to for chatter support in any particular domain, the better. So build a diverse board of chatter advisers, a group of confidants you can turn to for support in the different areas of your life in which you are likely to find your inner voice running amok.
2 Seek out physical contact. You don’t have to wait for someone to give you affectionate touch or supportive physical contact. Knowing about the benefits they provide, you can seek them out yourself, by asking trusted people in your life for a hug or a simple hand squeeze. Moreover, you need not even touch another human being to reap these benefits. Embracing a comforting inanimate object, like a teddy bear or security blanket, is helpful too.
3 Look at a photo of a loved one. Thinking about others who care about us reminds us that there are people we can turn to for support during times of emotional distress. This is why looking at photos of loved ones can soothe our inner voice when we find ourselves consumed with chatter.
4 Perform a ritual with others. Although many rituals can be performed alone, there is often added benefit that comes from performing a ritual in the presence of others (for example, communal meditation or prayer, a team’s pregame routine, or even just toasting drinks with friends the same way each time by always saying the same words). Doing so additionally provides people with a sense of support and self-transcendence that reduces feelings of loneliness.

* Tools That Involve the Environment
1 Create order in your environment. When we experience chatter, we often feel as if we are losing control. Our thought spirals control us rather than the other way around. When this happens, you can boost your sense of control by imposing order on your surroundings. Organizing your environment can take many forms. Tidying up your work or home spaces, making a list, and arranging the different objects that surround you are all common examples. Find your own way of organizing your space to help provide you with a sense of mental order.
2 Increase your exposure to green spaces. Spending time in green spaces helps replenish the brain’s limited attentional reserves, which are useful for combating chatter. Go for a walk in a tree-lined street or park when you’re experiencing chatter. If that’s not possible, watch a film clip of nature on your computer, stare at a photograph of a green scene, or even listen to a sound machine that conveys natural sounds. You can surround the spaces in which you live and work with greenery to create environments that are a boon to the inner voice.
3 Seek out awe-inspiring experiences. Feeling awe allows us to transcend our current concerns in ways that put our problems in perspective. Of course, the experiences that provide people with awe vary. For some it is exposure to a breathtaking vista. For someone else it’s the memory of a child accomplishing an amazing feat. For others it may be staring at a remarkable piece of art. Find what instills a sense of awe within you, and then seek to cultivate that emotion when you find your internal dialogue spiraling. You can also think about creating spaces around you that elicit feelings of awe each time you glance at them.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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