Book review Chatter by Ethan Kross
Too busy to read? Get your free cheat sheet about the solutions to chatter
This is a short summary of Chatter by Ethan Kroos. It’s a wonderful book which talks about our own internal voice, how it can affect our mental wellbeing and functioning, and how we can harness researched-based skills to have it work for us. Below is a summary of the information I felt would be most useful to men with mental health problems, aswell as just those who may want to know more.
What is chatter?
It may come as a relief to learn that you are not the only person who has a voice in their head! In fact we all do, and some of us may have many. They are usually our own voice, or those close to us. We talk to ourselves constantly at a rate of many thousands of words an hour.
Why do we chatter?
At a primitive level, our brain (alongside the rest of us) has two functions: to stay alive and reproduce. That’s it. In hunter-gatherer times, if we saw a friend killed by an animal or poisonous plant, we’d remember that, and our brain would give us warnings to keep us alive.
Similarly, as social animals, our brain enables us to learn the rules for social norms which enable us to fit in with others. ‘Don’t pick your nose!’ ‘Wash your hands!’ as you may tell your children. It also enables us to control our emotions You may remember ‘Don’t’ cry, be brave’ when you cut your knee as a kid.
Our brain allows us to learn and reflect on what happened, and then anticipate and plan for future threats or opportunities. This is a wonderful ability which has partly enabled humans to control their environment, and develop and grow as a species.
One more important factor is that we absorb the voices around us, for good or ill. ‘Don’t hit your brother’ ‘Never give up’ are things you may hear from parents which then become internalized.
Internal chatter is a key part of these processes & largely part of the normal human experience, with the exception of severe mental health issues like Schizophrenia where people may hear voices outside of their head where they may feel instructed to do things which would endanger their life. If you are worried that you may have this, or someone you care about does, please encourage them to seek medical help.
When does this go wrong?
Sound like a perfect system, right? Except there’s one issue. We can think about our own thoughts, also known as introspection. Unfortunately, this can be more harmful than helpful.
Why is this? Excessive worry or negative emotions leads to activation of our stress systems. This leads to production of stress hormones like Adrenaline and Cortisol. Whilst these hormones are helpful for keeping us alive in the short term via the fight or flight mechanism, they can lead to more worrying or anxious thoughts. In turn these thoughts and stress hormones lead to behaviours such as getting angry, shouting, or ignoring important issues. This can lead to difficulties at work and home.
Whilst these stress-hormones tend to exist for minutes and then pass, what can happen in people who chronically introspect and ruminate is that they go on for days, weeks, months and even years. One example could be if they have been given messages whilst growing up like ‘you’re worthless’ ‘you’re stupid’. Or you may be in a situation which leads to this line of thinking, for example with an ongoing problem at work like bullying.
Unfortunately, this in turn leads to further issues, like socially isolating yourself, or using alcohol or drugs to try and alleviate these voices.
Sadly, the combination of all these things can lead to full on mental health issues. When I’m reviewing patients in a holistic manner, this if often a big problem.
One final word of warning. These stress systems being chronically on can lead to changes in our genes, the study of epigenetics. These can lead to chronic inflammatory states which can lead us prone to infections, as well as more serious issues like autoimmunity and cancers.
What can we do about our negative chatter?
Fortunately, there’s multiple ways that have been identified of helping deal with our own internal thoughts. I’ll discuss a few of the key ones here.
Distancing is the process of putting some space between us and our thoughts. Try changing ‘I’m a failure’ to ‘You’re someone who is having a hard time.’ Using the second or third person can make the situation easier to comprehend. Similarly, think about what you would say to a friend who was experiencing the same difficulty. This different viewpoint can calm the mind
Reframing is looking differently at a situation. How have you overcome a similar difficulty in the past? Can you break the problem down into smaller chunks? How can you overcome this challenge?
Talking to others when wehave difficulties helps to alleviate our emotional anxiety about the situation, to then go on to solve the problem using our cognition. Choose who you speak to carefully to try and ensure they can do both for your problem. Similarly, you can do this for others.
Environmental ways of helping calm our chatter can revolve around creating order This includes tidying, creating lists of things to, or rearranging your immediate surroundings.
I’ve created this free cheat sheet that summarises many of the findings.
In summary, our internal voice is normal. It is there to help us survive, and we internalize the voices of others around us to help us fit it. As we can introspect, this can lead to negative chatter spirals which lead to emotional and behavioral difficulties, and in the long term lead to chronic mental and physical health issues. We’re able to alter our own internal chatter using evidence-based techniques that we can practice and learn.
If you want to implement some of the findings yourself, get this free cheat sheet that summarises many of the findings.