Anxiety and Our Inner Critical Voice

Our inner critical voices can make us anxious

In this article, you can find five useful strategies to prevent your critical inner voice from taking over and causing distress and anxiety.

Many people who suffer from one mental health difficulty also have an anxiety disorder. Nobody knows why anxiety is such a good friend to other mental health difficulties, but they often go hand in hand. However, one doesn’t need to have an anxiety disorder to experience anxiety. Anxiety is a natural part of the human experience.

The Brain as a Social Mechanism

As social animals, human beings are constantly calculating the possible outcomes of their social situations. We do this automatically and, most of the time, are not aware that we are doing it. This normal behaviour exists because the brain functions partly as a social mechanism that has evolved over time to monitor social relationships. In fact, all mammals monitor each other socially. They do this so they can understand who is a threat, who is friendly, who is dominant or subordinate, and who wants to reproduce.

Human beings have also evolved to recreate in their brains, through language, potential scenarios for how someone else might want to relate to them. We all imagine and reflect upon potential conversations or outcomes we might experience as the result of some action we are thinking of taking. We are always calculating, even when we are not aware of it. Many psychologists believe that there is a clear evolutionary advantage to doing this because we can consider all of the possible options that might result from a given behaviour on our part. It’s a natural part of our decision-making process. Think of it as running a mental simulation in your head and adjusting your behaviour according to your prediction of the best possible outcome.[note]Paul Gilbert, “The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy”. British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2014), 53, 6–4.[/note]

The Important Role of the Critical Inner Voice

In addition to calculating the outcomes before a given interaction occurs, humans also have a natural way of processing the success or failure of that outcome. How? We reflect and we analyse. If the outcome was positive, we might silently congratulate ourselves; we might feel more confident, and the strategy that we used successfully might be repeated in other similar interactions. However, if the outcome was negative, we might get anxious, and that natural reflective reaction might turn into something more obsessive. 

Everyone who is human has had that experience. You say or do something that upsets someone or causes a problem, and then experience a critical inner voice that fills your head with negative thoughts, feelings of anxiety, self-criticism and worry. “You shouldn’t have said that!” “Why did you do such a dumb thing!” “You are a complete idiot!” And then you replay the situation over and over in your head, lamenting all of your bad choices and worrying about how they will affect your relationships or your future in some way. And for a while, you can’t let it go. Still, most people make peace with the anxiety of a negative situation relatively quickly. 

Hopefully, something is learned from it, and we move on. For most people, the critical inner voice is not a chronic problem, but more of a mechanism to help us to improve our social skills and interactions, make better choices, and learn from our mistakes. We have evolved to have this critical inner voice so that we can successfully live in a society with others.

The Critical Inner Voice and Anxiety

In many people with anxiety disorders, however, the critical inner voice takes over completely and becomes a chronic problem. It fills our inner monologue with negative thoughts about ourselves and others, and leaves us constantly worried and calculating possible outcomes of our actions through a negative lens. This constant negative babble often becomes overwhelming. It prevents us from acting in ways that would benefit our personal, professional, or emotional development because we are too frightened by the possible negative outcomes. People who have extreme anxiety often cannot engage in more positive or realistic ways of thinking because they are stuck in the loop of negative thoughts that the critical inner voice keeps repeating. [note]https://www.psychalive.org/the-critical-inner-voice-defined/[/note]

Conquering an Overactive Critical Inner Voice

So how do we get past this? In the Hidden Brain podcast series, You 2.0: Befriending Your Inner Voice, Shankar Vedantam interviews psychologist, Ethan Kross [note]https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/you-2-0-befriending-your-inner-voice/[/note]. Kross has his own term for an overactive critical inner voice. He calls it “chatter.” According to Kross, chatter happens when our concerns become overwhelming to the point that we lose perspective and can´t see the bigger picture. For Kross, chatter is a type of fearful prognostication, whereas rumination is an excessive dwelling on the past, and worry is focused on the future. All three of these problems are repetitive and magnified in people who suffer from anxiety. 

Five Useful Strategies

Kross suggests five strategies to prevent a healthy, critical inner voice from taking over and becoming an endless cycle of chatter:

1. Distracted Self-Talk

When a problem appears, approach the problem from the perspective of a coach. When you are thinking about the problem, use the pronoun “you” as if you are a friend or coach giving friendly advice. 

When people can take a step back and think of a problem in this way, they find they have a heightened ability to be more objective.

2. Take a “Fly on the Wall” Perspective

If you are ruminating about something, try replaying the experience from a third-person perspective instead of a first-person perspective. Doing this can result in reduced emotional responses, which diminish the intensity of the experience and allow for more objective thinking.

3. Mental Time Travel

Instead of worrying, think about how you might feel at some point in the future. Like all things, the concerning situation will pass. When people can manage to see this, a feeling of hope takes over and reduces other negative feelings and thoughts.

4. Relabel “Threats” as “Challenges”

It can also be helpful to stop thinking about the situation causing the chatter as a “threat,” and to re-label it as a “challenge.” The idea is not to make light of the problem or concern, but to view it as something that can be overcome, just as we have overcome many other challenges in life. Challenges can inspire us to be our best and become stronger emotionally and intellectually. People who can do this may accomplish more in stressful situations, and have better biological responses.

5. Use Rituals

Using rituals can help negate chatter. Because rituals are behaviours that are performed the same way every time, they give us a more robust feeling of control. Much of the chatter of the anxious mind revolves around fear of what cannot be controlled. Rituals also demand a certain amount of focus. If you are concentrating on the steps in the ritual, your mind is occupied and not focused on the negative chatter. 

Kross uses examples of religious rituals, as well as other types of rituals that athletes use before competitions. Inventing such rituals for ourselves can help us to overcome negative chatter.

The Bottom Line

During these difficult times, it is easy to become anxious. All you have to do is turn on the TV and you will find something disturbing to obsess about. And with a 24- hour news cycle that works hard to turn everything into a crisis, we can easily internalise other peoples’ anxiety and add it to our own. Now, more than ever, we need to find effective coping mechanisms to bring our minds and bodies back into balance.  

About the Author

The author is a writer, teacher, voice hearer and mental health survivor. They wish to remain anonymous.