Shut Down the Mean Voice Inside Your Head

A woman with her hand on her forehead as someone comforts her from behind
Terry Vine/Getty Images

You’re in bed late at night, can’t sleep. Countless unsettling thoughts fill your head: Did I do x right? What if y happens? I could have done z better. That same voice haunts you during the daytime, too — it’s your self-doubt, your worst critic. When negative self-talk gets going, it’s so loud in your mind that reason and logic are drowned out.

So how can we stop that mean voice inside our heads?

Scans of the brain show two thinking modes: focused mode, which engages the happy areas of the brain, and default mode, when our mind is free to wander and we usually jump to anxiety and fear, according to Amit Sood, former chair of the Mayo Clinic Mind-Body Initiative and creator of the Resilient Option program. When not focused, between 50 and 80 percent of our mental space is spent looking for threats and imperfections, says Sood. It makes us needlessly critical of others, our environment and, most often, ourselves.

“The brain evolved around safety and survival, but we crave peace and happiness,” Sood says. Our brains get hungry for positive emotions and motivations: “Something that reminds me that I’m worthy and that I matter.”

This is especially true at 2 a.m., when our brain is not focused on a specific task and is wandering into negativity land.

How can we interrupt negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones? First, try to understand what’s happening. Look for patterns. “Keep a log,” suggests psychiatrist Cynthia Major Lewis. “Write down: One, when do you go down this negative path? Two, what is going on in your life? Three, is it when certain people are around? Four, is it around a particular time of the year or month? And recognize what helps pull you out of negativity.”

These mental exercises will shift your focus from bad thoughts and help you appreciate your achievements, your strengths and your loved ones. You’ll believe what is real, rather than what you fear. And you’ll find ways to be kind to yourself, rather than critical.

Take a brain health assessment, play games, discover new recipes and more with AARP’s Staying Sharp.

This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide any expert, professional or specialty advice or recommendations. Readers are urged to consult with their medical providers for all questions.

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