An illustration of a man trying to read while his inner voice distracts him.
An illustration of a man trying to read while his inner voice distracts him.

Have you ever tried to read a book or complete a task requiring focus after a fight with someone you love, or recently, while you were in the midst of worrying about the pandemic? It’s next to impossible. All the resulting negative thoughts that you experience – your harmful mental “chatter,” as I call it – consume your attention, making it hard to do anything else.

Chatter in the form of repetitive negative thoughts is a marvellous saboteur. Countless studies reveal its debilitating effects: it leads students to perform worse on tests, produces stage fright and a tendency to catastrophise among performers, and undermines negotiations in business. And it makes many things we love – like reading a good book – difficult to do, let alone enjoy.

The reason why this happens is because that noisy mental chatter consumes your executive functions: the brain system that controls your ability to steer your thoughts and behaviour in the ways you desire. In spite of their unglamorous, technical-sounding name, your executive functions are one of the mind’s superstars. They allow you to keep relevant information active in your mind, filter out extraneous information, block out distractions, play with ideas, and point your attention where it needs to go. And where it needs to not go.

Because of all the essential work executive functions get done for you on a second-by-second basis, they need every neuron they can get. The problem is, a negative inner voice hogs our neural capac­ity. Verbal rumination inside our minds – when we’re ranting to ourselves, or replaying an upsetting conversation – concentrates our attention narrowly on the source of our distress, thus stealing neurons that could better serve us.

The good news is that science-based tools exist to help you manage your chatter so you can focus more effectively and get in some good reading time. Many of these techniques involve shifting the way we think to control the conversations we have with ourselves. But strategies for controlling the inner voice exist outside us too, in our personal relationships and physical environments. Here are just a few examples.

Zoom Out

Chatter involves narrowly focusing on the problems we’re experiencing. A natural antidote involves broadening our perspective. To do this, think about how the experience troubling you compares to other adverse events you (or others) have success­fully navigated, and how other people you admire would respond to the same situation.

Distanced Self-Talk

Language offers us another avenue to ‘step back’ from the echo chamber of our own minds. When you’re trying to work through a difficult experience, use your own name to coach yourself through a problem. For example, ‘Ethan, you’ll get through this!’ While it might feel silly, this practice is linked with less activation in brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress, wiser thinking, and less negative emotion.

Perform a Ritual

Rituals – performing a fixed sequence of behaviours infused with meaning – can be helpful when people experience chatter. Although many of the rituals we engage in are passed down to us from our families and cultures, performing rituals that you create can likewise be effective.

Build Your Chatter Board

Finding the right people to talk to, those who are skilled at providing both support and advice, is the first step to leveraging the power of personal relationships for managing chatter. Depending on the domain in which you’re experiencing chatter, different people will be uniquely equipped to do this.

Create Order in Your Environment

When we experience chatter, we often feel like we’re losing control. When this happens, you can boost your sense of control by imposing order on your environment. This can take many forms: tidying up your work or home spaces, making a list, or arranging the objects that surround you are all common examples.

Seek Out Awe-Inspiring Experiences

Feeling awe allows us to transcend our current concerns in ways that put our problems in perspective. Sunsets, beautiful views, artwork, music: these things make us feel ‘small’ in a positive way that also shrinks our chatter. Find what instils a sense of awe within you, and then try to cultivate that emotion when your chatter spikes.

This article is adapted from Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It, out now.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image credit: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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