The Avid Reader: Quelling the conversation in your head

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/23/2021 12:45:20 PM

This past year has been marked by a steep learning curve involving online work from home, the vow to never again wear pants that don’t have an elastic waistband, social isolation, and a world-wide recognition that many conversations for the past twelve months have only taken place in our own heads.

While internal conversations are actually a characteristic of being human, the year-long isolation has precipitated a dramatic increase in many downbeat self-discussions. Interestingly, it is estimated that one person in ten even hears another internal voice, separate from their own, talking to them inside their head. Rest assured, while the principal reason for these different voices is not currently known, it is not generally considered abnormal in the least. But psychologists have been registering a massive uptick of internal dialogues that are very unconstructive.

So here we are a year later with torrents of unwelcome thoughts rattling around inside and seemingly no way to stop it. What to do?

Ethan Kross, author of “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It,” addresses this thoroughly. The first part of the book, which is impeccably researched, provides a detailed set of reasons why these detrimental self-talks are happening. Kross offers a series of case studies of famous people who have struggled with, and are sometimes defeated by, these adverse internal conversations. But he doesn’t stop there. Rather, Kross explains how everyone’s inner conversations have shaped, and are still shaping, our lives. This is important because, as he so clearly points out, if we can talk ourselves into negative thoughts – we can develop the tools to talk ourselves out of harmful conversations.

The last part of the book provides the detailed tools to control that inner voice. Kross clearly states that it is not expected that one tool will work for all situations. Rather, it is important to remember that the individual must first determine what the situation is that is prompting the unwanted chatter, and then select one or more of the tools to deal with it successfully.

Whether you are re-framing a situation from a threat to a challenge, normalizing an occurrence, or even providing chatter support for another, Kross covers it all. The research is scholarly and yet very easy to read.

One of the strongest points Kross makes in this book is the usefulness of imposing order on our environment. Not only is the value of this extraordinary, but the research he sites notes that “just reading about the world described as an orderly place reduced anxiety.” One of the reasons, Kross states, that depression is so frequently experienced is that many people perceive disorder in their surroundings. To clarify, it can be disorder in one’s immediate environment, the urban decay so many deal with, or even cluttered thinking.

This lack of order frequently makes sleep challenging. The chatter in our heads does not automatically shut down at sunset and many people are at a loss as to how to get some really restful sleep. Kross certainly addresses the need for sleep – for both mental and physical benefits. For example, he notes the traditional strategies of turning off the electronic gadgets, keeping the room cool and dark, not drinking caffeinated beverages before bed – which are all good pieces of advice. “Yes,” you say, “I do all that. But I still am not sleeping.” We need to take this one step further.

This is where Kathryn Nicolai comes in to help. Her solution is found in “Nothing Much Happens: Cozy and Calming Stories to Soothe Your Mind and Help You Sleep.” Nicolai is the creator and host of the podcast “Nothing Much Happens” and she has put more people to sleep than the leading brand of sleeping pill.

Her solution to insomnia is a series of lovely stories, written in an environment that is gentle, peaceful, and in locations where nothing much happens. What kind of a story is that? Actually, a very soothing one. These stories are designed to have a reader follow the author through walks in woods, morning hikes in newly fallen snow, and even a visit to a museum. The stories, meditations, quotations, and even a recipe or two, all contribute to a soothing experience for the reader. Once a story or loving reflection is read, the chatter in the reader’s head stills and they can slip into a meditative state imagining themselves in the story. That is the beauty of her writing.

The invitation into reading a quiet life is just what Kross was explaining with his review of the research associated with stilling the chatter. I really loved the sense of peace I found in Nicolai’s pages. The vivid descriptions evoked strong visual images. The meticulous observations reminded me of standing before a magnificent work of art and absorbing every detail. Even the comprehensive explanation of making avocado toast lead me down a contemplative path of quiet time spent in the kitchen.

These stories are not passively restful. They are actively expecting reader participation. We put ourselves in the quiet mind of the author and in that peaceful world we find rest and sleep.

Can that feeling of relaxation and contentment go beyond the sleep state and extend into waking life?

Anna McGovern says it can. “Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life” is a lovely defense for occupying oneself in a pleasant way – without a definite plan in place. Mindfulness, on the other hand is rather achievement oriented. Frankly, we are often expected to seek mindfulness rather aggressively in most of the books we read on the subject. Fortunately, one does not potter aggressively. Rather, one does something thoughtfully and then steps back and congratulates herself on doing it. Think cleaning out that junk draw in the kitchen. Once it is done you can admire yourself for the rest of the day. Scented candles and mindful moments are not needed.

Pottering also suggests some organization. There are five fundamentals to pottering: make do with what you have, don’t try too hard, move a bit, keep it local, and do it digitally-free. This can also help stop that chatter. For example, just imagine writing everyone’s birthday in the calendar, on the correct day and month, taking part of an afternoon and shopping for all the cards at once, getting to the post office for sufficient stamps, putting the cards and the stamps in a folder and having them ready when the time comes. Then, stand back and admire yourself once again. It feels quite delicious and supports both cutting the chatter and supporting sleep.

I find that I quite like to potter, and my intent is to do it more. So, read up on quelling the conversation, falling asleep comfortably and staying that way for eight hours, and doing one little thing every day that you can then admire about yourself. I got the birthday cards and stamps. Go me!

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