The COVID-19 pandemic has cut a once-in-a-century swathe of medical, social, and economic devastation through countries around the world. In its wake, psychologists are seeing rising levels of mental distress among individuals from all walks of life.
U-M professor Ethan Kross calls this problem “chatter,” which he describes as a spiral of negative inner thoughts that can cause people to get emotionally or physically stuck under stress or to rehash bad experiences and fret about future mishaps.
“Chatter is a significant problem and one that is particularly relevant right now,” says Kross, a professor in U-M’s Department of Psychology and Ross School of Business as well as the director of the Emotion & Self Control Lab. “We are living through the chatter event of the last 100 years. The coronavirus pandemic has created so much uncertainty about the future, and we don’t have control over the situation. As a result, many people are feeling anxious and upset. We are more stressed out now than we have been in some time.”
A recent Household Pulse Survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics shows a threefold increase in the percentage of adults in the U.S. who are reporting clinical symptoms of anxiety compared with 2019, before the pandemic began.
“Chatter affects people in business, medicine, and other professions as well as stay-at-home parents with kids — it has the potential to affect us all,” Kross says. “It interferes with our ability to think and perform at work. It creates friction in our social relationships. And it degrades our physical health. It hits on the big issues we care about: our health, relationships, and performance.”
Chatter matters not just in the U.S. It is also a worldwide health issue.
A recent World Health Organization study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders — which chatter factors into prominently — cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression and many of those individuals also struggle with symptoms of anxiety, according to findings.
Kross’s interest in chatter and how to control it began early in life.
“I grew up valuing introspection,” he says. “When bad things happened, I found that turning my attention inward to solve problems could be really helpful.”
However, as an undergraduate majoring in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, he began to realize that introspection didn’t always work well. When people turn inward to make sense of their experiences, their introspection sometimes backfires and they end up feeling worse.
“When we experience strong negative emotions, we frequently resort to introspection to try to problem solve,” Kross says. “But what often happens is that we narrow in so tightly on the problem that we get stuck. Zooming in on the most negative aspects of the situation floods us with emotion and keeps us from thinking about alternative ways of making sense of our experience that might make us feel better.”
People’s inner voice, it turns out, can be their best coach or their worst critic. (See the sidebar for more about the inner voice.)
During his graduate studies at Columbia University, Kross began to look for ways to harness this ongoing inner dialogue and to keep negative thoughts and emotions from undermining feelings of self-confidence, well-being, and happiness.
After joining the U-M faculty in 2008, he established the Emotion & Self Control Lab to continue his research on what causes the “voice in our head” to turn against us and how best to manage it.
Kross says that many simple, science-based tools for managing negative thinking exist within ourselves and all around us — if we know what they are and how to use them. In his new book, “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It,” he explains how the conversations we have with ourselves shape our lives and give us the power to change them.
One such self-help tool Kross recommends for counteracting negative thinking is “zooming out” to gain psychological distance. A person could consider how his or her current experience compares with other adverse events in the past, how it fits into the broader scheme of life, and how someone he or she admires might handle it.
For example, the 1918 flu pandemic was catastrophic at the time. However, the world got through that crisis and will get through the current coronavirus pandemic. There is hope for a global recovery.
Shifts in language also enable people to take a step back from chatter and change their perspective on a troubling experience. Distanced self-talk is one such linguistic technique.
“Our studies show that coaching yourself through a problem using your own name can be effective for reducing chatter,” Kross says. “For instance, I might say to myself: ‘Ethan, how are you going to deal with this situation?’”
Using the second-person pronoun “you” to refer to people in general (rather than to talk to yourself) is a way that individuals can distance themselves from upsetting events, says Ariana Orvell, PhD’19, who was a student and postdoctoral researcher in the Emotion & Self Control Lab from 2013 to 2020.
“In research work with Ethan and U-M psychologist Susan Gelman, we’ve found this tool enables people to view very personal experiences within a broader context as something others might also have experienced,” says Orvell, who now is an assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College. “It’s amazing that such a simple shift helps people get outside their own heads. I use the generic ‘you’ whenever I’m trying to make sense of something negative and reflect on it.”
Other self-help techniques in Kross’ toolbox include reframing an experience as a challenge that you are prepared to handle and writing about your feelings in a journal. Adopting the perspective of a neutral third party may also help you look for the best all-around outcome.
Relationships with other people — family, friends, supervisors, and employees — and interactions with the physical environment offer a range of tools to help individuals harness their inner voice, says Kross.
“You can talk to others in a way that makes you feel better or worse,” he says. “Science provides a road map to guide people toward the right kinds of conversations that can help them manage their problems and allow others to do the same.”
For chatter support, Kross recommends building a trusted “board of advisers” who can provide emotional help as well as concrete advice on how to move forward. Performing rituals, such as communal meditation or prayer, with others or building a support network on social media are other useful strategies. Asking a friend for a hug or gazing at the photo of a loved one can also soothe an agitated inner voice during stressful times.
People can take steps to boost their sense of control over their mind and emotions by creating order in their surroundings. For instance, tidying up the office, making a to-do list, and rearranging the furniture are often helpful activities.
“Interacting with the outside world also has implications for the world inside our head,” Kross says. “Spending time in green spaces and seeking awe-inspiring experiences outdoors can provide a mental recharge that helps us manage chatter.”
High school psychology teacher Tammy Darling used one of Kross’ techniques to calm her inner voice before she delivered a speech at a Lexington High School graduation ceremony in Lexington, Massachusetts. Scheduled to follow an appearance by comedian Rachel Dratch, of “Saturday Night Live” fame, Darling became more uneasy the more she thought about the speech.
“All of a sudden, my inner voice turned against me,” Darling recalls. “My heart started racing, and I felt like I was going to pass out. My head began spinning with repetitive anxious thoughts. I was caught up in a tornado of negative emotions.”
Things might have turned out badly if Darling had not remembered remarks that Kross made at the 2017 Educator Summit in Philadelphia. In his keynote address, he suggested using distanced self-talk to flip the script and give a pep talk, just as a coach might do with a player.
Almost subconsciously, Darling began talking to herself.
“I said, ‘Tammy, if Addie were here, she would want you to be great,’” says Darling, referring to her 12-year-old daughter. “Suddenly, my heart rate and breathing slowed down. I regained my self-composure and used distanced self-talk to quiet that inner storm. I was able to get up and crush the speech.”
Since then, Darling has used this technique repeatedly whenever she speaks before an audience or appears on a discussion panel.
“Those little conversations have been a game changer,” she says.
The tools individuals use on a personal level to control chatter also could be applied on a larger societal scale to improve national discourse and the current political climate.
“We don’t experience our emotions in a vacuum,” Kross says. “We are social creatures, and we live and work in groups and interact with other people. Our ability to control our own emotions may have downstream positive implications for how we relate to one another.”
The human capacity for self-control not only predicts our health, success, well-being, and decisions, according to Kross. It also foretells our ability to rein in feelings of aggression that promote tribalism and other anti-social behaviors.
A number of years ago, Kross met with a group of psychologists, economists, and Obama administration officials at the White House to discuss how key findings in psychology could be leveraged to improve policymaking decisions and to promote the greater good. In September 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing the federal Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, a group of experts in behavioral science tasked with translating scientific findings into improvements in federal programs.
More recently, Kross has been conducting studies at the Ross School of Business focused on leadership issues and wisdom. His findings could help government and business leaders improve their decision-making on policies and planning.
“Our work shows that zooming out promotes wisdom, which we define as a willingness to admit when you are wrong, to consider alternative viewpoints, and to enhance intellectual humility,” Kross says. “This technique can help leaders make more ethically and morally appropriate decisions. We need this right now, because many people are operating in their own self-interest.”
What Is Our Inner Voice?
As a scientist who studies the human mind, U-M psychology and management professor Ethan Kross says we all have a voice in our head that can help us deal with tough tasks by either buoying us up or dragging us down into negative self-talk, which he calls “chatter.”
Our inner voice involves silently using language, says Kross. This verbal stream, or self-talk, is so energetic that, according to one study, we are capable of talking internally to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per minute out loud.
“We can use our inner voice to keep different pieces of information active in our head,” Kross says. “For instance, we may repeat a phone number silently, so we can use it later to call someone.”
Our inner voice can help us plan actions and conversations in the future. For example, a job applicant may silently rehearse his or her remarks before going into an interview and anticipate what responses the interviewer will make during their conversation.
Our silent inner conversations enable us to contemplate a problem and weigh different options or scenarios, as if we are fitting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.“
At the other end of the spectrum, we can use our inner voice to make sense of our experiences,” Kross says. Finally, we use our inner voice to write the story of our life, with us as the main character.“Doing so helps us mature, figure out our values and desires, and weather change and adversity by keeping us rooted in a continuous identity,” Kross says.
The following excerpt from “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It” shows that even Mr. Rogers had a troubling inner voice.
If you grew up or had children in the United States between 1968 and 2001, you probably recall Fred Rogers’s soothing voice on his legendary thirty-minute television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But beneath his serene persona, Rogers’s inner voice could torment him, just like the rest of us. We know this because his inner critic is on full display in a letter he typed to himself in 1979, shortly after returning from a three-year break from doing his show:
Am I kidding myself that I’m able to write a script again? Am I really just whistling Dixie? I wonder. If I don’t get down to it I’ll never really know. Why dan’t [sic] . . . I trust myself. Really that’s what it’s all about . . . that and not wanting to go through the agony of creation. AFTER ALL THESE YEARS IT’S JUST AS BAD AS EVER. I wonder if every creative artist goes through the tortures of the damned trying to create.?. Oh, well, the hour commeth [sic] and now IS when I’ve got to do it. GET TO IT, FRED. GET TO IT.
Rogers’s strikingly vulnerable letter provides us with a raw chatter artifact of sorts, a front-row seat to observe his shifting inner voice.
The first three-quarters of the letter presents an inner dialogue that is filled with self-doubt, self-criticism, and even despair. But as the note to himself progresses, you can see Rogers building toward another way of thinking about his situation. His inner critic begins to fade out as he recognizes that regardless of his insecurities he has to deal with the task at hand—“the hour commeth . . . I’ve got to do it.” And then he does it. He switches into using distanced language—using his own name—to convey to himself that he can in fact write his show. And with that shift in perspective he got back to work for another twenty-two years while at the same time illuminating the fork in the road we all face when confronting an overwhelming situation.
CLAUDIA CAPOS, ’73 is an award-winning journalist and the owner of Capos & Associates communications company. Her articles on research, business, celebrities, and travel have appeared in national and international publications.