Manage Stress by Creating an Out-of-body Experience

Me, myself, and I--at the center of anxiety

Posted May 13, 2014

What do you say to yourself when you’re worrying about an upcoming event, like going on a job interview, or preparing to give a speech? We may tell ourselves, “I just have to stay positive,” “Don’t worry so much about what others think,” or “Remember to make eye contact when interacting with them.” These statements are part of our self-talk, the on-going inner monologue we have with ourselves when we make decisions, motivate ourselves, and regulate our emotions.

Sometimes our self-talk works against us, however, and hijacks our thoughts with irrational ideas and catastrophic scenarios, making a difficult situation even more stressful. Once this starts happening, reminders to think positively or avoid worrying become very hard to achieve.

Some new research finds that a subtle shift in our self-talk language can improve our ability to deal with stressful situations and function better. Here’s the upshot: Talk to yourself in the 2nd-person voice—call yourself “you”—instead of referring to yourself as “I” or “me” (the 1st-person voice). For example, instead of saying to yourself:

“I’m getting tense, so I’d better breathe,” (1st person), tell yourself

You’re getting tense, so you’d better breathe.” (2nd person)

Instead of asking yourself:

“What if I don’t do as well as everyone expects me to?”, ask yourself

“What if you don’t do as well as everyone expects you to?” (2nd person)

Referring to yourself as “you” may feel unnatural at first, but it has important benefits. This research had people think about a stressful event for a few minutes, and instructed some of the people to use “you” when thinking about themselves in the situation, and others to use “I”/“me”. The results showed that when people used “you” pronouns, they experienced less anxiety and had fewer negative thoughts about the stressful event. They also came to see the event as challenging rather than threatening, whereas people who used “I/me” language saw it as more threatening.

Why does saying “you” have these positive effects?

“You” is normally how we refer to other people. When we say “you” to ourselves, this language gives us the sense that “you” are an outside observer of events, not at the center of them. In other words, calling yourself “you” mentally distances you from the event a little, so you can the situation more objectively. This mental distance is so important when we start to feel anxious—it helps us avoid getting carried away by our thoughts. We sometimes mistakenly assume that our thoughts are the reality, when in fact they’re just our interpretation of reality.

In addition to 2nd-person “you” language, an equally effective strategy is to use 3rd-person language—referring to yourself in the 3rd person, by your own name. For example, if Mary says to herself:

“Mary, try to calm down,” (3rd person) this work just as well as her saying,

“You should try to calm down.” (2nd person)

In both examples, the language situates you as though you’re a different person, a bit removed from the experience.

Fortunately, with some practice, anyone can adopt this strategy and change their self-talk language when anticipating anxiety. By comparison, this should work better than trying to follow a general rule of thumb—like “Think positive” or “Don’t worry”—which are difficult to enact when we already feel stressed. The language/pronoun change is more mechanical and requires less energy.