Subvocalization, Inner Speech and Intrusive Thinking

If you listen carefully as you read this post, you will notice a faintly audible  whisper of the the words you are reading. It may be the same whisper you use to think in the symbols and code of language. It maybe an on going monologue or diaogue one has with his or herself, or narrative of scenes played out inside ones head. This overall process is dubbed “inner speech“, “inner monologue“,   “inner dialogue” or Subvocalization, depending on what you read.   Subvocalization is term usually used in the context of reading. However, because of the active verb subvocalizing, or to subvocalize, I prefer to use it here.
To subvocalize is more specific than to think, as one can “visualize” ,  “Be mindful“, feel, or even speed read while thinking without that low audible whisper of language. Subvocalization is thinking in Language, the way one would hear or speak it.

The following are a few difficulties with subvocal thinking.  This is my speculation based upon my experience.   I am not a doctor.   If your thinking is causing you serious health or life problems consult a doctor or health care professional.

Subvocalizing and  “Thinking Errors”.

One suggestion in neuroscience is that one side of ones brain creates emotional responses while the other side of ones brain uses the inner dialogue to rationalize the emotion.
Perhaps Affects (mood and emotion) influence on the process of  subvocalizing  is what produces  “cognitive distortions” or “Thinking Errors” aka “Thought Errors“).
These “errors” maybe   life- intrusive and/or self defeating, and are particular problem for people with Mental disorders (like me), and require a person to cope, and pay special attention to their inner dialogue.  People who suffer from long term Depression , for example will usually “hear” a excessive  negative or self defeating  subvocal thinking.

“Loud” or “Fast” Subvocalizing.

For some people, especially diagnosed with mental disorders, subvocalizing can seem “louder” than sensory intake .   For me in the past, my attention span was consumed  by inner thoughts, as if my thinking was so loud, that I had trouble keeping my attention span  on the  outside world. I have described this as being unable to focus, feeling lost in thought. very frustrating.

For Some with mood disorders, when their mood is elevated their subvocalization seems faster than normal. Faster than normal subvocalization is usually called as “racing thoughts”. For  those people experiencing  “racing thoughts” , they may have a sense of higher creativity or productivity, real or false. Consequentially  the speedy subvocalizing leads to fatigue and unstable moods, irrational thinking, or worse: the  delusional thinking of psychosis .

Intrusive thinking

Sometimes subvocalization can seem hostile to the person experiencing them:  such as the case with  “intrusive thinking”.
Some people can be overwhelmed with the very  intrusive  Thoughts   of self harm, or harming others, that are repeatedly    subvocalized …  “round and round in ones head”.   Ironically  the subject matter of this inner monologue or narrative is  NOT the intent of the person — instead it is very scary experience!
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted.  Intrusive thoughts are not  delusions. Instead they are pressing,  unwanted unreasonable  thoughts and fears that are repetitious. After time they can develop into obsessions. Intrusive thoughts are consciously rejected and uncomfortable, but extremely hard to get rid of for some people.

An example: A women suffering from  “intrusive thinking”  (perhaps symtoms associated with postpardom OCD, in this example), could have the constant thought (subvocalization) of harming her child. But it is not the true intension of the mother, usually its  the opposite: the scariness thing her  mind could conjure. Instead the repeating thought terrifies the young mother. Doctors and professionals associated Intrusive thinking   with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder and  ADHD, but they can be a symptom with other  diagnosis.

Its a possibility that,  in the case of someone  experiencing intrusive thinking, that this particular inner thought pattern   is  a behavior that is doing something else for the body:  perhaps  drumming up  Alert/anxiety centers  for the body to be in a state of readiness.  Being in a state of readiness and alertness may have helped early humans survive in their evolution. who knows… this notion is hard to prove. In any case, the problem is that in  today’s world  this thought pattern is scary and unwanted.
Often people suffering with intrusive thinking  willh believe they are evil or bad.. not realizing that,this is a process of the mind, somehow drumming up their most fearful thoughts…possibly to protect themselves. Ironic.

Noting the problems with an  unhealthy subvocalizing  process ,  I  think it is important to disambiguate  subvocalizing from the generic  term “thinking” for the purpose of this  conversation.
here is why:

  •  Subvocalization uses language while other cognitive process do not.
  •  I am able to cognate (interpret, process and feel emotion) without relying on subvocalization all the time.
  • I am able to be mindful ( filling ones attention span) of mental formations other than subvocalizing with language, by just observing, visualizing  or meditating.
  • I am able to “quiet” subvocalization especially with meditation or medication.
  •  subvocalizing appears to be, in my phenomenological experience, to be an activity such as walking or talking.

 
These are important points because it helping me understand the following:
subvocalizing is not the whole of my thinking, and it does not have to control the whole me or my thinking.
When Someone says I am not my thoughts… this is what they are talking about:  the chattering and for some consuming “subvocalization” process or inner speech.  Subvocalization is part of me,  part of my cognation or thinking processes, but not the whole of me. The process is very useful in  daily life, but comes with consequences.

– As with “Loud Subvocalization” ” Racing thoughts”, “Thinking Errors”, and “Intrusive thinking” The inner dialogue and subvocalizing can as destructive as they are anything else . Learning to understand and control the inner dialogue may be important in managing Mental Wellness.

Ways to reduce intrusiveness of  Subvocalization:

  • If one is experiencing  what he or she thinks  are Intrusive thoughts, Thinking errors, Depression Mania, or any uncomfortable problems with your thinking — Its more than a good idea to Talk to your doctor or health-care provider. Doctors are able to prescribe treatment or medication that can help one manage health problems quickly — Yes these are real health problems.– Doctors and professionals  are the only ones who  diagnose a person with a disorder if needed.
     
  • Breathing Exercises and Meditation are excellent ways to learn to let go of subvocalization and be more mindful of other things.
     
  • A breathing  and/or counting exercise  can be a good plan to slow down or control an episode of negative, intrusive, or obsessive thoughts  when an episode arises.
     
  • Positive Self Talk.  When becoming aware of of a negative, intrusive or racing train of thought: verbalize   “STOP!” or “I AM SAFE”, followed by verbalizing positive  affirmations. learning to replace negative thoughts with positive ones take time, but is helpful.
     
  • Journaling – writing has been a way for to let go of thoughts that seem to go round in my head. I am not sure why it is helpful. perhaps the physical act of writing what is on my mind expels the energy of it all. Or perhaps it gives me a way to clarify my thoughts.

 
As far I can tell, our inner speech or subvocalization is not such a bad thing, much of the time, nor should it be.
Our use of language, thinking in language and speech helps us read, clarify our ideas, explore ideas more deeply, use rational problem solving, and communicate with other people.  But it is important to realize that it is not the whole of my thinking, or the whole of me.  And for those of us who suffer with excessive, negative, or intrusive subvocalizing, better understanding these process can make us happier and allow are thinking to be more useful tool and component for the whole of ourselves.

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About chris
I write because I'm not good at it. I share because, writing without sharing seems empty. Thus, I write and share what I think is meaningful.

17 Responses to Subvocalization, Inner Speech and Intrusive Thinking

  1. Pingback: Written On My Wrists (Part I) wrist-cutting, suicide and intrusive “voices” « A Body Harmed – My Body and Self-Harm

  2. crayzys says:

    An exceptional post. Very well thought out. Your ability to focus on what some say is ‘Over-Thinking’ has given me great clarity. I am printing it out so that I may study and incorporate how this is a process when my inner dialogue gets too loud and look forward to applying your suggested action steps to relabel my over-thinking into a dialogue between the brain hemispheres.

    When you think about the concept, that subvocalization is just one part of the process, it gives you freedom to continue in the process and not get stuck but move through the process to continue towards healthy development.

  3. Pingback: Slowing down that chattering mind subvocalizing « Pennsylvania Echoes

  4. Cesar Silva says:

    Hi,

    Do you believe how much our sub-vocalization is involved in our health?

    Those last few months I have been noticing something very interesting which may explain more physically why our thinking process ends up producing uneasiness and contractions in the body, specially in the belly, which prevents the diaphragmatic breathing so essential for well being:

    See, when we talk, it’s part of the speech process to contract the belly, ok? That is how our body can push air out, because our diaphragm can’t perform this, ok? Very basic breathing anatomy, right?

    If you maintain the belly contracted it will make breathing difficulty by not allowing the diaphragm to push things down, thus filling the whole of lungs. And if it is not possible to push the abdomen downwards like a child breathing, the only option is chest breathing, thus triggering the anxious body process.

    Ok, not big of a problem because as soon as we stop talking, we release the belly and thus allowing a normal breathing.

    But, as you pointed out so well in this article, much of our thinking process is actually sub-vocalizing. But in the vocalizing process moves the whole speech apparatus, right? It’s expected to do so, once this is nothing but a silent talking.

    So, if I am right, could this sub-vocalization get so chronic in some individuals that this non-stop self-talking simply makes the belly kind of permanently contracted?

    Have you thought about this? If not, please, take some time, it seams very important, because if my thesis were correct it would explain so many things that happens with us.
    —————

    Introducing myself, I am Cesar Silva, I suffer from a mental disorder my whole life, related with, talking, breathing, social phobia, etc, so I have been paying a lot of attention in this subject.

    Thanks

  5. chris says:

    Thank you for comment Mr. Silva.
    You might be interested in concepts from an unorthodox but highly influential psychologist named Wilhelm Reich.

    Reich theorized and believed-in what he called “Body Armor”, it sometimes shows up in literature as “Character Armor” or “Defensive Chain Mail”:

    http://www.sonoma.edu/users/d/daniels/reichlecture.html

    Reich detested the notion of Mind/Body duality, and believed we wore emotions and anxiety all through are body, as if it were chain mail, (metaphorically)

    Fritz and Laura Perls, founders of Gestalt Therapy, were very impressed by this metaphor of “Body Armor”. Much of their Gestalt Therapy method focus’s on a client becoming mindful of their own body as a whole, as it functions.

    examples of gestalt investigation as enfluenced by Reich:
    That is,
    I am subvocalizing … what is the rest of my body doing?: chest stomach, legs etc.

    then progressively:
    How is my body as a whole, functioning as I subvocalize?

    then more elegantly:
    How am i subvocalizing?

    Each person as a whole subvocalizes differently.

    check out Wilhelm Reich.

  6. Brian says:

    Great artical! I really just started learning about being normal again after learning about subvocializing and a number of the negatives problems I have after going through a three year problem in my life. I will take sometime to get control but I have hope I can. This had been something I have fought to understand for 25 years. I wrote his very well! You should be very proud.

  7. chris says:

    Thank you very much!

  8. Jon says:

    Very interesting article! One area I’m curious about is on attention:

    “For some people, especially diagnosed with mental disorders, subvocalizing can seem “louder” than sensory intake. For me in the past, my attention span was consumed by inner thoughts, as if my thinking was so loud, that I had trouble keeping my attention span on the outside world. I have described this as being unable to focus, feeling lost in thought. very frustrating.”

    Do you know what conditions are associated associated with subvocalization that interferes with paying attention to the outside world?

  9. chris says:

    Thanks for commenting Jon.
    I have spoke with people with the “intrusive-thinking” symptom who have describe to me the same “loud thinking”.
    “Intrusive thinking”, like “Racing thoughts” is descriptive. Medical Science has not define physical mechanism nor pin-pointed a source yet. From what I have read:

    Intrusive thinking is usually associate with diagnosis of Anxiety Disorders including OCD, ADHD, Anxiety-Depression
    wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intrusive_thoughts

    Racing thoughts and “Flight-of-ideas” are usually asssociated with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder or other Health disorders complicated with mood disorder
    wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racing_thoughts

  10. Pingback: Cognitive Distortions and Thinking Errors of CBT (revisited) | Pennsylvania Echoes

  11. Jack Starr says:

    Good post. The only thing I disagree with (from enough experience) is how you’re replacing or counteracting negative thoughts that come in (without your say) with good ones to get the temporary relief before they come back. I used to do that and it never made me feel better in a lasting way; even if it did, it wouldn’t be right.

    Here’s a simple anecdote. Consider what your ACTUAL beliefs and judgments are about anything and everything you have ever analyzed to be true to you. Now, as long as these automated thoughts aren’t similar, that is positively and negatively with anything you WANT to send to the Universe (The Law of Attraction), don’t let ANY thoughts bother you or take joy out of your life – they are creatively and most of the time negative, but possible – don’t let that scare you.

    Say you sit down and try to focus on a task. What you told your subconscious mind, while (consciously) counteracting thoughts throughout the day, feeling like you ‘had to’ counteract them, is your conscious mind ‘should’ focus on those distractions, giving them a more pungent importance. ALL distractions which aren’t critical can be equally distracting. The only power a thought has is if you lay claim to it and give it power, the power being your perception of it, NOT the thought actually occurring.

    What people with OCD (I believe everyone not using whole brain learning on a consistent basis has negative OCD) ‘fear’, and it is a stagnant, unrealistic fear, is that the bad, inappropriate, untrue thoughts might come true because of the terrible possibility or distinction of them coming true. In short, they won’t. BUT, if any bad thought actually does take place in reality, it’s not because of the person who thought of it, regardless of how much emotion they put into it, there’s no relevance at all. OCD has a very simply cure.

    Please learn from the following phrase which may be hard to believe at first. OCD is a choice. I have had OCD ever since I was taught to read. I would read and reread over and over again paragraphs, sentences, words, and even if I was writing, I traced over letters. WHY? My intuition was certainly telling me something, and that was:

    Reading is how we’re taught to learn, but there has to be a way to learn that is NATURAL.

    This training has changed many people’s lives, including mine: http://www.zoxpro.com

    SOME ANECDOTES:

    “Be careful with your emotions. Be wise with your judgments.”

    Relax yourself. Use the Law of Attraction positively. God knows what you want. Then, as a reward to yourself, you won’t feel repeatedly obliged to replace the unwanted thoughts with good ones whenever they come in, ever again. Just let the thoughts come in, and even if you undauntedly subvocalize them, don’t worry; that’s how tricky negative creativity can be.

    Don’t block any thoughts. Treat the negative thoughts, you know don’t reflect your current beliefs and judgments, as inert.

    Don’t counteract thoughts! From experience, I consider that behavior tantamount to arguing with the Devil. That behavior kept the worry cycling for me and that was never fun.

    Whenever judging anybody, only be positive. There are subtle, basic, and extreme judgments; they all equate when it comes to what negative and/or positive creativity can bring forth to the conscious mind. Unless, there’s something you actual want to heal in your life or positively suggest to somebody or how you respond to situations, refrain from useless judgment(s).

    I believe OCD is a call for enlightenment. I am enlightened, in that I feel more free and do my best to put only positive thoughts out there. There are things which are annoying but it’s how we respond to them that matters.

    God Bless your journey and enjoy each and every moment. Life will always have wonderment.

    Oscar

  12. chris says:

    I am sure it will be helpful to readers.
    I was never diagnosed with OCD, I am diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. One thing I have learned is different strategies and methods will work or will not work on a person by person bases.

    I have a common phrase amongst peers: “What works for one person may not work for the next”

    Bipolar Disorder Management is an evolving thing. today, I use breathing exercises and meditation to let go of overwhelming subvocalization and I use methods from gestalt therapy as that help in understanding what my body is doing when symptoms such as overwhelming thoughts come about.

    As far as the positive self talk, such as Repeating “I’m Safe” after an Anxiety/Panic Episode, I found those helpful as short term plans in the past.

    I do strongly agree with you about ‘Not blocking thoughts”.
    I discovered that in trying to correct other thoughts process over along time, I was creating more anxiety for my self. While trying to “Block” certain thoughts I was simply making myself more anxious with them.

    I’m glad you fell enlightened with OCD, because I today,I feel enlightened (my word would be wiser or tuned in) with Bipolar disorder.

    We experience parts of life that maybe to subtle for the median (lack of a better word) to notice.
    may you enjoy your journey as well!

  13. chris says:

    I was inspired to write this post because I was reading some misunderstandings about linguistics and how we think in verbal language. We lie to ourselves all the time when subvocalize.
    We even lie to ourselves when we we daydream.

    I’m sure that many afflicted with intrusive thinking or “self defeating” thinking are not aware of this.
    Many who don’t experience this kind of thinking also may lack the understanding.

    We are not our subvocalized thoughts, When “I think” it is not all that” I am” (apologies to Descartes).
    Subvocalization is a integral part of whole of me, one part that is affected by other integral parts of me … and my being as a whole.

  14. Jack Starr says:

    I agree with all of what you said. Is Bipolar Disorder where you experience a hyper moment of too much excitement then as it tapers off, soon after, there’s the opposite feeling of despair or something else?

    How would you define Bipolar Disorder, because I’m not sure if I’ve had it? I cure my mood just by moderating certain emotions in a healthier way, as well as considering what is important to me.

    When you say “self defeating” or intrusive thinking, are you referring to automated thoughts ‘which are just there’ to subvocalize and you know those aren’t true, but in the past have felt compelled (OCD) to say something like a mantra “I’m safe” or ‘I care’ to get rid of them just for those unwanted thoughts to return?

  15. chris says:

    I am hoping to post about defining “diagnosed bipolar disorder” soon.
    For now I will point that “down” or depressive moods are do not necessarily include feelings of dispair,

    Mood disorders are a chronic conditions where characteristically associated physiological responses and thoughts ( mood) strongly influence a persons living as a whole to the point of serious, sometimes dangerous intrusion. you can check out my opinions and explanation on mood:

    http://echopen.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/mood-definition-a-disorderly-description-reposted/

    A bipolar disorder diagnosis is generally a mood disorder diagnosis, that does not include symptoms that originate from drug or alchohol, physical illness such as strokes, thyroid problems, etc. Many doctors believe that Bipolar Affect Disorder is genetic in origion.

    As far as self talk, as in deliberately saying “I’m Safe” after an Anxiety/Panic Episode:
    This is meant to be a Strategy… not a compulsion. Sometimes…. After naturally letting a panic episode run its course (this a strategy in itself), one will still have anxious thoughts for a while. saying “I’m Safe” is just to slow things down.

    But if doing self talk becomes an intrusive compulsion, well then maybe another strategy is useful.
    Each person is different. Self talk strategies will not work for everybody.

    As far as the so called self defeating thoughts such as “cognitive distortions” SEE
    http://echopen.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/cognitive-distortions-and-thinking-errors-of-cbt-revisited/
    Not everyone understands that these are not true when they experience them.
    Thats why I mention them. Learning to be aware of ones actions, including cognitions, feelings and behaviors, especially in real-time, is important for mental health managers — in my opinion.

    I would like to add: my favorite style of management does not override my obligation here to point out that there are are other styles of management availible for mental health consumers. So I talk a little bit about cognitive behavior strategies such as discussing “cognitive distortions”, plans and self-talk, even though I am more likely to use gestalt therapy approach when managing health at any given time.

    thanks.

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