Earlier this month, a study reported that a brief instruction in either of two forms of meditation helped quiet negative thoughts in people who were told to think about a fear they had. The results aren’t too surprising since meditation was largely developed to do exactly this, but it’s always good to have more scientific evidence for the effect. Meditation is a tried-and-true method for quieting fear-based thoughts, but there are others that are equally effective, and which come from other disciplines, like psychology and neuroscience. Many of the strategies are actually pretty closely related to one another, but we can pick and choose from them as needed, when the “voices” in our heads are particularly meddlesome. So here are some science-based ways to quiet the chatter.
Learn to Meditate
The effects of mediation are so robust and so well-illustrated that they’re worth mentioning right off the bat. The study mentioned earlier is especially important, since it found strong effects in both of the two main forms of meditation: Focused Attention (FA) and Open Monitoring (OM). (For a longer recap, see here.) In FA, one focuses on a thing—usually the breath—to train attention. And when your mind wanders, you bring it back to the breath, again and again. So the practice isn’t actually sitting there with a blank mind—it’s bringing the focus back to its object repeatedly. In the other, more advanced form, OM (also called mindfulness meditation), you watch your thoughts non-judgmentally, acknowledge them, and then (theoretically) let them go. Rather than reacting to a thought, you just observe it curiously and then watch it subside. In the new study, OM was more effective at helping reduce the number of negative thoughts people had, but FA helped a great deal, too.
And beyond this, lots of earlier work earlier work has found the same thing in different ways: Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can actually deactivate the brain regions that are thought to underlie mind chatter, the default mode network (DMN), which is active when our brains are just idling and flitting from thought to thought. Others have shown that it can actually change the structure of the brain in ways that support our ability to turn off the DMN. So meditation seems to offer a lot of benefit—not only psychologically, but neurologically—in reducing mind chatter.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
The research here is also pretty incontrovertible: Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has been shown again and again to help treat a range of mental health issues, not the least of which is the negative voices in our heads. In a nutshell, CBT teaches a person to recognize the negative thought processes they fall back on, and then consciously create a new thought—one that’s more based in reality—to replace it. So as with meditation, here, you’re also working to rewire the brain over time.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy is the gold standard when it comes to reducing negative thoughts,” says clinical psychologist Deborah Serani, author of the book Living With Depression. “It works on two levels—the first is with your thoughts, helping you to identify them, how they’re semantically worded, and how they impact your well-being, and finally how to reframe them. The second level looks to shift your behavior to match your newly minted thoughts.”
She adds that CBT can ultimately change one’s way of being in a larger sense, after one learns how to adjust his or her go-to thought processes. “The psychological equation usually goes like this: if you think negatively, you behave negatively. So the thought is, ‘I’m never going to get that promotion.’ And the resulting behavior is that you don’t work harder at work. But if you think positively, you’ll behave positively. So then it becomes a new relationship. Now the thought is, ‘I could get that promotion. I’m valuable.’ And the new behavior: You apply for the position and work towards that goal.”
CBT and meditation have a lot in common—in particular, the recognition of one’s own thought processes. So there’s a hybrid called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which has also been shown to be extremely effective it treating depression and reducing relapse.
This can actually be separated from meditation proper, and might feel a little more accessible if you’re stuck in your head need a quick grounding in the present. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s famous description of mindfulness was to pay attention to the present moment on purpose, and non-judgmentally. What this means in a moment-to-moment way is that you pull your attention back into what you’re doing at the moment—your hands in the soapy water of the dishes, your breath, the way food feels in your mouth, the way your body feels in the chair, where you’re feeling stress or ease in your body and so on. Just taking a moment to pay attention to the present rather than what’s in your head—which is usually a far-off place—can do a lot to snap you out of your head.
Color, count, recite, run
As silly as it sounds, the adult coloring book craze has some merit, probably by focusing attention on a specific task. There’s not a lot of research on coloring, but a couple of studies have found connection between drawing and stress reduction. Other people may count as a way to focus their minds, or say a mantra. These are all subtle ways of focusing on a thing or activity other than our rambling thoughts. For those who like it, running can be a way to focus attention on the action, and the repetition of footsteps (of course, for those who hate running, other exercises are probably better). Distraction may work, but you have to be careful. “Distraction can be a simple way of diverting your thoughts to an activity, thought or emotion that takes away the negative thought,” says Serani. “For some, distraction, like listening to music, if your thoughts are negative, going for a run or talking about a memory that makes you happy can be an easy technique. For others, distraction feels temporary, and soon negative thinking takes root again.”
Talk to an actual person. Barring that, write.
There’s a fundamental difference between talking in your head and talking to a person: Talking in your head rarely arrives at any great revelations, since what’s floating around is often just a bunch of un-ordered thoughts and worries—but the act of verbalizing these thoughts and worries helps you generate a story, and generate meaning to that story. If you can’t talk to a person, write it out. That seems to have a similar effect to talking, probably because it also falls into the category of creating a narrative. One study on the effects of writing found that it helped with both physical and psychological issues, leading the authors to suggest that one mechanism behind the act of writing may be the “development of a coherent narrative over time.” Others have also suggested that it’s the cognitive processing that occurs when one is writing which confers the therapeutic value of the activity. Creating a narrative helps you wrap your head around what’s going on, which helps take away some of the painful circuitry of mind chatter.
“One of the more effective ways I treat the spiral of anxiety is using radical acceptance, or acceptance,” says licensed psychologist Shannon Kolakowski, “which is based in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).” She says that here, you try and accept the current reality as it is, however lousy, instead of trying to change it. “Rather than struggle and try to change what cannot be changed, you learn to accept it. It could be uncertainty, it could be fear, it could be any of life’s difficulties that we cannot control. It’s freeing from the cycle of worry because it teaches you to cope and deal with what’s happening that’s beyond your control, rather than try with futile efforts to change things.”
Self-compassion is another part of ACT that can help tweak the internal monologue. “Having self-compassion is the act of treating yourself with kindness, and responding to your anxiety with gentle understanding and soothing,” says Kolakowski. “Often, the first response to anxious thoughts is, ‘Oh no, here we go. I can’t take this. I hate this. I hate when I have these thoughts.’ Self-compassion helps you change the internal dialogue to, ‘It’s hard to feel this way, but you can get through this.’ It also encourages people not to blame themselves for feeling anxious, which makes anxiety worse, but instead to approach it from a place of understanding.”
Get outside yourself by helping others
Another way to quiet the internal dialogue is to devote some time to an outside endeavor, particularly ones that benefit other people or the greater good. “Focus on something or someone outside of yourself,” says Kolakowski. “Monkey mind tends to be very self-absorbed, and if it’s possible to focus your mind on others, particularly at first, but it’s a great habit to develop.”
“Defuse” the rhetoric
A lot of our intrusive thoughts are pretty rhetorical and abstract. Serani points out that one way to help your negative thoughts lose power is to reframe or repeat what’s bothering you until it loses meaning. “Cognitive defusion,” says Serani, “is a technique that takes a word or a phrase and changes the function of how it impacts you. For example, studies show that if you take a phrase you say to yourself over and over again, like, ‘Life is meaningless,’ and reframe it as ‘I’m having a thought that life is meaningless.’ Repeating it as the second sentence takes the negative punch out of hearing it. Similarly, if you there’s one word that you hear again and again in your head when you mess up (‘Stupid’), or feel inadequate (‘Loser’), saying it aloud over and over again aloud, dilutes it of its power. The vital piece here is to take the thought itself and verbalize so you can hear it. Cool, right?”
You can also use what’s known as positive direction, or positive affect. “This is another linguistic trick to re-word your negative thoughts. Instead of thinking to yourself ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘I’ll never be able to make this goal happen,’ twist the phrasing into positive words that you say aloud like, ‘Of course I can be successful,’ or ‘I’m going to definitely make this happen,’ to cheer you on. Such thinking stimulates goal directed behavior, priming the frontal lobes when you use such positive phrasing.”
If all else fails…
There are a lot of tricks that can help settle mind chatter, but none will be effective all the time. Sometimes you have to forcibly remind yourself that the mind is built to chatter and to make predictions—but that most of what it predicts doesn’t actually come true. Think of all the times the fears that your mind comes up with haven’t actually materialized. There might be some small solace in remembering that. And the good news is, as the science is showing more and more, that the brain can in fact rewire itself, with some practice, over time. The methods listed above are all ways to help it do this, so that in time the chattering will be less loud, and quiet down more quickly, with smaller and smaller reminders.
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