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How Our Internal Monologue Impacts Our Mental Health

What's the best way to think about thinking?

Key points

  • Thoughts naturally arise automatically in our minds without us choosing them.
  • How we think has a big impact, and research suggests that the stories we tell ourselves often aren't real.
  • Research indicates that perspective-taking, meta-awareness, and mental distancing are important tools for harnessing the power of thought.

We’re constantly engaging in internal chatter. Our verbal stream of thought is so active that we internally talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per minute out loud. That’s more than 300 State of the Union addresses every single day.

At the same time, the psychology of thinking presents a paradox: Our thoughts seem to come and go mysteriously. And yet, their constant presence makes it feel as if our thoughts are synonymous with our sense of self. Are we our thoughts? Can we choose our thoughts? And how can we develop our perspective-taking abilities, metacognitive awareness, and mental distance?

In order to better understand these questions, we recently spoke with Dr. Diana Hill. Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara, CA, where she provides therapy, high-performance coaching, and training to mental health professionals in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). She is a co-host of the popular psychology podcast Psychologists Off The Clock, and the author of ACT Daily Journal: Get Unstuck and Live Fully with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Matt Johnson: Can we actively create thoughts, or can we merely witness them?

Diana Hill: Well, I think it's both. We can create a thought. You can think “I am this.” But at the same time, what you will start to notice is that your mind is chatting all the time. As you and I are talking, our minds are saying things they’re thinking about, and are anticipating the next thing we’re going to do. And we didn't actually create these thoughts. They just happen.

So thoughts do arise automatically in our minds without us choosing them. But we can also choose to think a thought if we want to think a thought. I can right now think about what I'm going to have for lunch and how good it's going to taste. I can imagine it. And this thought, in turn, has a real impact. It can, for example, create saliva in my mouth, or make me hungrier.

Photo by Darius Bashar via UnSplash
Thoughts often come and go in mysterious ways
Source: Photo by Darius Bashar via UnSplash

So yes, we can activate thought, but oftentimes thoughts are just being activated on their own. And the interesting thing about that is that, evolutionarily, our thoughts tend to have certain qualities to them because our brains are designed to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Our brains tend to be a little bit critical. They tend to have a little bit of a negativity bias. So our thoughts sometimes can have those qualities to them, especially when we feel threatened. Our thoughts can also have a sort of quality of ego. Especially in competitive environments, we tend to think very egotistically.

Even just the quality of our thoughts can change depending on the environment they're in. The immediate responses of brains are not always the most helpful because sometimes it's really not helpful to have threatening self-critical thoughts. Our minds tend to be meanest and most critical when we're doing new things or hard things. So, in those situations, it's really not helpful to have a thought that says, “what the heck are you doing?” But that's what our mind tends to do.

MJ: It seems that one’s relationship to their thoughts is crucial to the ACT perspective. Could you expand on that?

DH: Thoughts can have a big impact, and so we need to develop a healthy relationship with them. In addressing this, we can become more metacognitively aware, or we can get a little bit more distant from our minds. When we do, we can choose not whether or not we're going to have the thoughts going to come in again, but we can choose whether or not we listen to them, or whether they dictate our behavior like a drill Sergeant or a teacher versus just, sort of like, that's my mind doing its thing.

Photo by Giulia Bertelli via Unsplash
Thoughts are often self-critical, an area where ACT can be beneficial
Source: Photo by Giulia Bertelli via Unsplash

Specifically, in Acceptancy and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we teach specific skills around cognitive defusion, which is your ability to step back from your thoughts and get a little space from them. It’s about noticing our chatty mind, not getting entangled in it, and ultimately being playful with it. To this end, we do all sorts of things.

For example, I'll teach a workshop and I'll have people think about self-critical thoughts that they've had that day. But the twist is they have to type it out with their pinkies or write them really big or write them in another language. What all of these things do is bring a little bit of distance from them, and help the person realize that these are just thoughts. They're just words that are going through one's mind and that they actually don't have power over me.

MJ: How do these approaches relate to perspective-taking?

DH: I've been a long-time yoga teacher and practitioner. I studied with Thich Nhat Hanh in my twenties. My dad is also a Buddhist teacher. So a lot of my background in history is originally in Buddhism, but also in yoga. I dropped out of graduate school and went to a yoga ashram my second year, and then went back to graduate school and said, "If I'm coming back to this cognitive-behavioral program, we're going to incorporate some acceptance."

Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash
Perspective taking can be a critical tool for harnessing the power of one's thoughts
Source: Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

Coming back to this question: One of my earliest mantras was very simple: Hamsa. Which is just “I am”. My yoga teacher would have me practice it 100 times every time I'd come in, and I’d be thinking “Hamsa,” “Hamsa,” with every breath. The reason why she would teach that is to get down the idea that I am the spaciousness that holds my thoughts, and also holds my physical sensations. This helps me get to the idea of myself as interconnected to a greater whole, which in turn allows me to be able to take perspective on one’s own story.

More often than not, we say things like, “I am fat,” “I am ugly,” “I'm a loser,” or, “I am unworthy.” Those are the items we're usually caught up in, but in ACT we come to see that those are really contextual and that those change over time. These stories aren't always real. Instead, you step into a greater, transcendent self that can observe and take perspective on your own self-story.

In doing that, you can also develop skills and be able to have perspective-take with other people too. That is key for things like empathy, collaboration, and conflict resolution.

MJ: How can someone practice and develop perspective-taking?

DH: This is actually something that I do on a regular basis with my kids. My kids will sit at the dinner table with me and I'll ask them questions like, "Tell me about a friend that you were interacting with," or, say, my kids will be fighting, and I'll be like, "Okay, if you are your brother and your brother were you, what would your brother be feeling right now? What would he be thinking right now?" I think it's incredibly helpful, especially when we're suffering or when we're caught in belief systems that are rigid or preventing us from connecting with others.

This post also appears on the marketing psychology blog PopNeuro.

References

Hill, D. and Sorensen, D. (2021) ACT Daily Journal: Get Unstuck and Live Fully with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, New Harbinger Publications

Jones, S. and Fernyhough, M. (2011) The Varieties of Inner Speech: Links Between Quality of Inner Speech and Psychopathological Variables in a Sample of Young Adults, Consciousness and Cognition 20 (2011): 1586–1593.

Korba, R. (1990) The Rate of Inner Speech, Perceptual and Motor Skills 71: 1043–1052

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