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How to use your environment deal with the negative thoughts in your head

All of us are prone to patterns of negative thinking, but what happens when these unhelpful thoughts become an overwhelming chatter you can’t escape? 

In a new book, experimental psychologist, neuroscientist and writer Ethan Kross – who calls himself a ‘mind mechanic’ – reveals the tools that will help you retrain your thought patterns. 

Ethan, who studies the science of introspection at the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, explains that we all internally ‘talk to ourselves,’  and that this flow of ideas is ‘ inextricable from our inner lives’. 

For that reason, it is hard to zone out bad thoughts from more positives ones. 

We think about that s****-up at work or misunderstanding with a loved one and end up flooded by how bad we feel. Then we think about it again. And again. We introspect hoping to tap into our inner coach but find our inner critic instead,’ he explained.  

Ethan says that chatter occurs when we cyclically rehash negative thoughts and impede our capacity for introspection by being too negative about ourselves, impacting well-being and our decision-making, relationships, happiness and health.  

Here, he shares his toolkit for retraining your brain, including mental time travel and talking about yourself in the second person when discussing your negative thoughts. 

Experimental psychologist, neuroscientist and writer Ethan Kross gives the best tools to escape negative thoughts, or what he calls ‘chatter’ (stock image)

Engage in mental time travel

The expert also says that thinking about how you’ll feel a month, a year or even longer from now is a good way to broaden your perspective.  

‘Remind yourself that you’ll look back on whatever is upsetting you in the future and it’ll seem much less upsetting. Doing so highlights the impermanence of your current emotional state,’ he says. 

Change the view

Ethan says to try and look at a negative experience form the perspective of a fly on the wall peering down on the scene to better understand why you feel the way you feel.  

‘Adopting this perspective leads people to focus less on the emotional features of their experience and more on reinterpreting the event in ways that promote insight and closure,’ he explains.

‘You can also gain distance through visual imagery by imagining moving away from the upsetting scene in your mind’s eye, like a camera panning out until the scene shrinks to the size of a postage stamp,’ he adds. 

Write expressively

Writing is also a good way to let go of your emotions. And Ethan advises to write all your feelings down and deepest thought for 15 to 20 minutes a day for three days in a row. 

‘Focusing on your experience from the perspective of a narrator provides you with distance from the experience, which helps you make sense of what you felt in ways that improve how you feel over time,’ he explains.

Clutch a lucky charm or embrace a superstition

‘Simply believing that an object or superstitious behavior will help relieve your chatter often has precisely that effect by harnessing the brain’s power of expectation,’ Ethan says. 

‘Importantly, you don’t have to believe in supernatural forces to benefit from these actions,’ he adds. 

Perform a ritual

Ethan also explains that ritual – sequence of behaviours infused with meaning – can provide people with a sense of order.  

‘Although many of the rituals we engage in (for example, silent prayer, meditation) are passed down to us from our families and cultures, performing rituals that you create can likewise be effective for quieting chatter,’ he says. 

Look at images of your loved ones 

When you’re trapped in a cycle of negativity, use an image of your loved ones to anchor yourself in a more positive mindset.  

‘Thinking about others who care about us reminds us that there are people we can turn to for support during times of emotional distress,’ he says. 

‘This is why looking at photos of loved ones can soothe our inner voice when we find ourselves consumed with chatter.’ 

Use distanced self‑ talk 

The more distance you can put between yourself and your negative thoughts the greater they will diminish.  

‘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,’ he says.

‘Doing so is linked with less activation in brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress, wiser thinking, and less negative emotions.’

Pick 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,’ he writes. 

He adds you can pick what he calls ‘a board of advisers’ for different topic, depending on their skills. Some might be more equipped to advise you on a work issue, while others can weigh in best on your personal experiences.  

‘The more people you have to turn to for chatter support in any particular domain, the better,’ he says. 

‘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,’ he adds. 

Seek 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,’ he says. 

And he adds this is transferable to inanimate objects as well.  

‘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,’ he says. 

Ethan, pictured, explains that bad thought influence our mental health and our decision-making skills

Ethan, pictured, explains that bad thought influence our mental health and our decision-making skills

Don’t scroll passively on social media  

When it comes to social media, Ethan advises against ‘passive’ scrolling, which means just going through Instagram looking at the lavish pictures shares by influencers and the like. 

He says looking at other people’s curated pictures can trigger self-demeaning thought spirals.

He advises to uses social media platform actively as a mean to connect with others instead.   

‘Although social media can instigate chatter, it also provides you with an unprecedented opportunity to broaden the size and reach of your chatter-support network,’ he says. 

‘If you use this medium to seek support, however, be cautious about impulsively sharing your negative thoughts. Doing so runs the risk of sharing things that you may later regret and that may upset other,’ he says.  

Imagine advising a friend

He also says one good way to apply distance to your situation was to pretend you were advising a friend faced with the same problem, rather than yourself. 

‘Think about the advice you’d give that person, and then apply it to yourself,’ he said. 

Broaden your perspective

Ethan explains that chatter involves narrowly focusing on the problems we’re experiencing, and that you can broaden your perspective in order to move on from that. 

‘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,’ he says. 

Reframe your experience as a challenge

Ethan explains that chatter is often triggered when we are faced with a situation we can’t manage, and it’s all a matter of mindset. 

‘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,’ he says. 

Reinterpret your body’s chatter response

Often, the bodily reaction of stress lead to more stress, in a form of vicious circle.  

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It, by Ethan Kriss, is published by Vermilion

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It, by Ethan Kriss, is published by Vermilion 

‘When this happens, remind yourself that your bodily response to stress is an adaptive evolutionary reaction that improves performance under high-stress conditions,’ Ethan says. 

‘In other words, tell yourself that your sudden rapid breathing, pounding heartbeat, and sweaty palms are there not to sabotage you but to help you respond to a challenge.’ 

Normalize your experience

The expert also explains that knowing you’re not alone in your experience can help you to stop the negative thoughts.  

‘There’s a linguistic tool for helping people do this: Use the word “you” to refer to people in general when you think and talk about negative experiences,’ he says.

‘Doing so helps people reflect on their experiences from a building up to those that may require a little more time and effort.’ 

Ethan adds that ‘stepping back’ top adopt a calmer, broader and objective perspective is a great way to combat negative thoughts.  

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It, by Ethan Kross, is published by Vermilion. 


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