Doom Spiral: When Negative Thoughts Get Out of Control
The roots and the risk of "chatter."
Posted July 29, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Neuroscientist Ethan Kross explains the inner voice in his new book "Chatter," and his conclusions complement the schema therapy approach
- We all develop an inner voice which helps us to learn and stay organized.
- Under stress, your inner voice can turn into a negative feedback loop causing more stress and even depression, anxiety, or somatic symptoms
This is part one of a two-part post. Click here to read part 2.
How do you stop yourself from obsessing over something, focusing on it until you lose a sense of perspective, and your thoughts spiral out of control into a stress fest? It happens to all of us, whether before a big test or interview, or while coping with stressful life events or losses. It can feel like life itself is turning into a doom scroll.
Ethan Kross is an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist who founded the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. In his latest book, Chatter, Kross explains the neurological roots of the phenomena of inner voice and how it becomes negative and hard to control as “chatter," and then presents research demonstrating techniques for overcoming it.
In part one of this series, I describe the background of the research and findings Kross presents, along with signs of when you may be suffering from chatter. In part two, I'll share some schema therapy techniques using inner voice and imagery, which incorporate Kross’s principles. You can try them out to overcome chatter when it strikes.
Neuroscience Origins of Your Inner Voice
As our brain develops in early childhood, we are learning to do things like walking and using our hands to do stuff—all the time relating to our caregivers verbally through listening and trying to talk. Kross describes this period as one when our working memory is developing: a brain function that weaves completing tasks with learning to understand and speak words.
A key element of working memory is what Kross calls the phonological loop—a link between how we hear words, and how we say words to ourselves in our head, starting to use an inner voice. This is, to quote Kross, the “verbal doorway between the self and the world.” We rely on verbal guidance from caregivers to learn how to be in the world, using this verbal doorway. We hear commands and guidance from caregivers, and we learn new words so we can get things done. We hear these words in the world, we hear them in our head, and we repeat them to ourselves, developing that inner voice.
As our working memory begins to involve talking more and more, we begin to use the inner voice to control and guide and manage ourselves. During this period, it is not unusual to actually say words out loud to direct ourselves, just as we hear our parents directing us. We may talk to our toys the way we hear adults talk, or develop imaginary friends. This ability to use words and thoughts to manage things becomes what we call executive function. In psychological theory, executive function is our way of directing ourselves to get things done and handle multiple tasks at once.
Chatter, or the Negative Verbal Stream
Problems begin when this inner voice becomes too critical, too insistent, and doesn’t stop. This, Kross explains, is when the inner voice turns from being a tool into a source of pain, a negative verbal stream, or what Kross calls “chatter.”
Chatter is when self-guidance turns into self-criticism, worry, negativity, and fear, causing a feedback loop that undermines our performance. So we have a self-fulfilling prophecy: Worry makes us perform worse, which reinforces reasons to worry, which makes our performance even worse, and off we go into a spiral: Chatter. If chatter falls into a serious spiral that is hard to pull out of, it can become a problem at the level of a mental health issue. Kross reminds us that depression, PTSD, and anxiety, while different from each other, all share the experience of intense chatter.
Of most concern, Kross links chatter to our brain’s stress response: The worse the chatter, the more the stress response is likely to be triggered. The bad news is that the more our stress response is triggered, the more likely we are to develop somatic symptoms. Kross points out that studies have shown a chronic physiological stress reaction can lead to such things as cardiovascular disorders, sleep disorders, and even cancer.
Signs You're Dealing with Chatter
I’ve translated Kross’s descriptions of chatter into a collection of symptoms based on cognitive, physical, and emotional categories.
- Difficulty concentrating
- Obsessive focus on and repetition of bad outcomes
- Rumination, or rehashing of past events
- Worry, through the anxious imagining of future events
- Feeling pressure in your chest
- High heart rate/blood pressure
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Sleep issues
- Easily irritated/angered
- Feeling low-level fear or dread
- Feeling isolated
- Feeling powerless or like surrendering
Whether you fall into chatter in response to a one-off stressful event, or you realize that chatter is more of a chronic issue, you’ll notice these symptoms playing out in your day.
Of course, you could see chatter as another way of describing symptoms of anxiety or obsessive thinking. But a key emphasis Kross adds in his book is the idea that our inner voice plays a crucial role in how we process doing things, and how that brain function goes haywire when stressed. For this schema therapist, it’s all about voice and what we do with it.
As always, if self-help efforts aren’t effective, you should consult a therapist for anxiety.
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Kross, E. (2022). Chatter. New York: Crown.
Roediger, E., Stevens, B., Brockman, R. (2018) Contextual Schema Therapy. Oakland, CA: Context Press.