Your Negative Self-Talk Could Be Harming Your Health — Here's How to Stop

Ruminating about why your co-worker didn't say hello to you this morning isn't doing you any favors. These expert-backed tips will help you stop negative self-talk in its tracks.

Your Negative Self-Talk Could Be Harming Your Health — Here’s How to Stop
Photo: Alex Sandoval

Your inner voice is incredibly powerful, says Ethan Kross, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist, the founder of the Emotion & Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan, and the author of Chatter (Buy It, $18, It can make you happier and more successful — or, if you're engaging in negative self-talk, it can hurt your health and even make you age faster.

Here, he explains how to stop your negative self-talk and turn it into something more positive.

What exactly does your inner voice do?

"At the most basic level, we use it to keep nuggets of information in our heads. If I were to ask you to memorize a phone number, you would be using your inner voice to do that. It also acts like a reminder app: A verbal thought will pop into your head about something you have to do. The inner voice is considered a part of our verbal working memory system.

But I often refer to it as a Swiss Army knife of the mind because in addition to memory, we use it for lots of things, like creativity and planning. We might silently rehearse what we're going to say before a big presentation, for instance. We also often have an inner monologue running through our head so we can make sense of experiences. It helps us find meaning in ways that shape our identity. And we use our inner voice to coach ourselves and say, Here's how you're going to handle this situation. Giving yourself a pep talk — that's your inner voice at work." (See: How I Stopped My Negative Self-Talk Once and for All)

How does negative self-talk become a liability?

"Ironically, when we try to use our inner voice to work through problems or make sense of a negative situation, it often backfires. That's because we tend to focus narrowly on the situation at hand, like 'why did that person insult me?' And that just ends up magnifying the negativity. One bad thought leads to another, and soon we spiral into ruminating, and we get stuck there.

Another example is when we start criticizing ourselves and we get sucked into a loop of thinking how terrible we are [aka negative self-talk]. This is what I call chatter — the dark side of our inner voice. Chatter is a big problem. It undermines our performance at work, and it damages our social relationships and our health. And during the pandemic, the uncertainty and loss of control we've all been feeling has fueled chatter."

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Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It

How does negative self-talk and chatter hurt your health?

"It plays a role in prolonging our stress response, and when stress remains chronically elevated over time, it exerts wear and tear on the body. That can result in negative conditions like sleep problems, cardiovascular disease, and even certain cancers.

What's really interesting is the science showing how chatter, in the form of chronic stress, can affect our DNA. Emerging evidence suggests that it plays a role in turning on genes that are involved in inflammation and turning off genes that fight viruses. Not only that, but chronic stress can also affect how fast our telomeres, the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes, start to shorten, which is associated with cellular aging." (See: How to Hack Your Telomeres to Delay Aging and Live Longer)

How can you redirect negative self-talk and make it healthier and more positive?

"Fortunately, there are different tools we can use to stop negative self-talk. When you're dealing with a problem, take a step back and reframe the way you see it. Just as it's easier to give advice to other people, if we can talk to ourselves in the second or third person, it distances us from the emotion and allows us to be more objective. So in your head, speak to yourself using your name. Interestingly, a number of famous people have said they do this, like Jennifer Lawrence and LeBron James. Research shows that when you use this technique, you're less likely to ruminate and more likely to think wisely. It's psychological jujitsu. It changes your perspective so you can give yourself better advice on how to deal with problems.

Also, impose order in your surroundings. When we experience chatter, we feel like we are out of control. Regain it by tidying your desk or clearing your kitchen table. Organizing your physical space provides you with a sense of mental order.

Go outside. Spending time in nature helps replenish your brain, which can help reduce chatter. Take a walk through a leafy neighborhood, or go hiking in the park. If you can't get out of the house, gaze at a photo of a nature scene — science finds it has a similar effect. And buy some plants. Incorporating greenery into your space can help too."

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