Doom Spiral: What to Do if Your Inner Voice Goes Too Far
A new book reveals evidence-based principles supporting schema therapy.
Posted August 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Neuroscientist Ethan Kross explains the inner voice and how it can turn obsessive and negative in his new book.
- Kross and colleagues' research demonstrates that “distancing techniques” can help.
- Schema therapy has long used distancing tools which could help you find relief from chatter.
This is part two of a two-part post. Click here to read part one.
When we focus on possible outcomes and scenarios based on anxious thinking, our brain does what Ethan Kross, in his new book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, describes as “projecting scenes onto our mental home theater” as images in our mind’s eye. A fascinating element of mental home theater imagery is that we can experience events in our mind from different perspectives. This led Kross and colleagues to conduct an experiment that asked participants to imagine an upsetting memory— except some participants were asked to imagine reexperiencing the memory first-person, while others were asked to experience the memory as though they were watching events happen from a third-person, outsider perspective. Kross called the two groups the immersers and the distancers. The striking result was that the distancers coped much better; they were able to empathize with others more, have more sympathy for themselves, and understand when they were being irrational. It turns out that viewing our troubles through a third-person perspective also has the benefit of reducing the effects of being stuck in a survival-mode, fight-flight-freeze stress response. This also means less physical stress when imagining tough scenarios and problem-solving.
Kross calls this a “distancing approach.” He goes on to explore types of distancing, including journaling about your life from the perspective of a neutral observer, and “temporal distancing,” in which you imagine yourself in the future, after you have come out of the stressful time you currently experience.
All of these techniques show that when you distance, you are able to be less emotionally triggered, less stressed mentally and physically, and you make better judgments and decisions.
To a schema therapist, Kross makes stunning points regarding distancing and talking out loud to yourself, or speaking to yourself by name. In neuroscience-speak, talking to yourself “triggers the pattern recognition software” we use when talking to someone else. This is a verbal kind of distancing, or distanced self-talk, yielding very quickly the same benefits of distancing that come from scene imagery and journaling. This means talking to yourself in the third person, calling yourself by your name. An example Kross offers is when, during a night of insomnia and anxious mental chatter, he says out loud to himself, “Ethan. Go to bed.”
Another, very moving example of distanced self-talk came out of University of Buffalo experiments with children doing distanced self-talk as a way of coping with losing a parent. Children who talked about experiences using the “I” pronoun were more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD. But those who practiced distanced self-talk coped better. Self-talk, again, is addressing the self in the third person: “No matter what, their dad loved them, and they have to think of the good things that happened… they can hold on to the good memories and let the bad ones go.”
Schema Therapy and Four Distancing Tools
For decades, schema therapy has been developing, honing, and practicing distancing tools very much in line with Kross's neuroscience research. The next time you find yourself caught up in anxious chatter, you may have some success trying one of these techniques. These exercises may be most effective if you try journaling about your experience as you practice them.
Imagery Rescripting. Work with a scene in the video library of your mind, whether it’s a memory or an imagined scene you’re worrying about. Start with the scene as you see it. Next, switch your perspective to being a spectator watching the scene happen to you. Speak about yourself in the third person: “What does she need right now to get through this?” Your answers, for example, could be “strength” or “confidence” or “compassion” or “understanding” or “fairness.” Now reimagine the scene with a different outcome, including the qualities you believe “she” needs. Tell yourself you can imagine having these qualities so that you connect to them.
Parts Dialogue. If you are stuck in a chatter mode that is negative and self-critical, try to separate yourself into parts and have them talk to each other. Try allowing for the voice of your inner critic to speak, and then respond from the perspective of a realistic, skeptical, self-compassionate you. When both voices talk, they should speak about you in the third person. Inner critic: “He should have known better; this never would have happened.” Compassionate self: “It’s not fair to expect anyone to predict the future that way! Sometimes bad things happen in life, and being critical like that isn’t going to help him.”
Substitution. It can be difficult to practice distancing techniques with yourself. Sometimes it’s just too hard to get that distance when you’re caught up in anxiety. One trick used by contextual schema therapists like Eckhard Roediger (Roediger, et al. 2018), is to substitute yourself with the image of another person in the stressful scene you’re working through. If you are thinking about a difficult childhood memory, your inner critic may really believe you should have been able to handle something better. Now substitute the image of another child of the same age in the image. You may find you are better able to sympathize with another child from a more realistic perspective.
Extension. Another contextual schema therapy distancing technique is to just step entirely outside of the scene that’s unfolding. Imagine a stressful scene, but then freeze it, step outside of it, and imagine a friend or mentor, someone you trust, looking on and commenting on what’s happening to you, in the third person. This is a surprisingly powerful trick. You may hear yourself speaking, in the voice of a friend, “He is always hard on himself, so I see how he thinks this situation was his fault. I care about him a lot and tell him not to do this! It’s just not fair to anyone to do this.”
In Chatter, Kross makes an exciting case for the neuroscience tool of distancing. Paired with established schema therapy practices, you have at hand skills and techniques that are powerful, effective, and quick.
Kross, E. (2022). Chatter. New York: Crown.
Roediger, E., Stevens, B., Brockman, R. (2018) Contextual Schema Therapy. Oakland, CA: Context Press.