A Science-Based Technique for Coping With Stress

How you speak to yourself matters.

Posted Dec 09, 2020

Pixabay. AnnaliseArt.
Source: Pixabay. AnnaliseArt.

Do you wish to be able to manage difficult emotions more successfully, make wiser decisions, and deal better with socially stressful situations? Psychological science has discovered a simple technique that may help you do just that. It is called distanced self-talk.

Distanced self-talk “leverages the structure of language to promote emotion regulation by cueing people to reflect on the self using parts of speech (i.e., names and non–first-person pronouns) that are typically used to refer to other people.”

In simple terms, the technique involves reflecting on your stressful experience from an outside perspective. This is accomplished by a change of pronouns. Instead of using the first person “I” in your internal monologue, you can use your name, the second-person generic “you,” the third-person pronouns “he, she, they,” or even a “fly on the wall” perspective. For example, let's assume I'm facing a problem, or reflecting on an emotionally stressful situation I've experienced. Instead of thinking, “How will I solve this problem?” or, "How am I feeling about what happened?" I may ask myself “How is Noam going to solve this problem?” or "How is Noam feeling about what happened?" or “How will you solve the problem?” or, “What's the 'fly on the wall’ perspective on what happened?” etc.

This idea may seem simplistic, but things are not always what they seem. In fact, words are highly consequential to our lived experience. Think about how many people live by God’s word. Think about the notion that your word is your honor. Think about how you were taught as a child by those who loved you to “watch what you say” and "think before you speak." Think about how a passage in a book can move you to tears, how an argument can provoke your rage, and how an inspired speech can get you off the couch and into the streets in protest. Note how certain words are forbidden in certain situations in the same way that certain behaviors are forbidden. We have no reason to forbid something that’s powerless to affect us.

Words are powerful. They matter in the external world, and they matter within our internal landscape, too.

Indeed, a considerable body of empirical evidence has accumulated over the past decade to support the efficacy of distanced self-talk for improving emotion management, decision making, and coping with stress.

For example, looking at how people may manage anger and aggression, Dominik Mischkowski of The Ohio State University and colleagues (2012) found that “reflecting over past provocations from a self-distanced or ‘fly on the wall’ perspective reduces aggressive thoughts and angry feelings.” Moreover, “provoked participants who self-distanced had fewer aggressive thoughts and angry feelings… and displayed less aggressive behavior… than participants who self-immersed or were in a control group. These findings demonstrate that people can self-distance in the heat of the moment, and that doing so reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and aggressive behavior.”

Looking at decision-making, psychologists Ethan Kross and Igor Grossmann (2012) of the University of Michigan examined “whether psychological distance enhances wise reasoning, attitudes, and behavior.” In two experiments, they showed that priming participants to reason about personally meaningful issues (i.e., career prospects for the unemployed during an economic recession; anticipated societal changes associated with one’s chosen candidate losing the presidential election) from a distanced perspective “enhances wise reasoning (dialecticism; intellectual humility), attitudes (cooperation-related attitude assimilation), and behavior (willingness to join a bipartisan group).”

A series of studies by Kross and colleagues (2014) examined whether the technique would help participants regulate their stress surrounding socially demanding tasks such as making good first impressions and public speaking. Results showed that “compared with the first-person group, the non-first-person group performed better according to objective raters...They also displayed less distress…and engaged in less maladaptive postevent processing.” In addition, self-distancing helped participants “appraise future stressors in more challenging and less threatening terms.” These findings, the authors conclude, “demonstrate that small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self during introspection consequentially influence their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress.“

Anna Dorfman of the University of Waterloo and colleagues (2019) examined changes in emotionality following adverse experiences in daily life. They asked participants to reflect in writing on adverse experiences over a 4‐week period, randomly assigning them to either a self‐immersed or self‐distanced perspective. Results showed increases in positive emotionality among self‐distanced participants compared to self‐immersed participants.

Ariana Orvell of the University of Michigan and colleagues (2020) had participants reflect on a series of future- and past-oriented negative personal experiences of varied intensity using distanced and immersed self-talk. They found that a “subtle shift in language—silently referring to oneself using one’s own name and non–first-person-singular pronouns… promotes emotion regulation.” Compared to first person (“immersed”) self-talk, distanced self-talk reduced participants’ emotional reactivity to negative experiences of varying levels of intensity. The findings held for future and past events, across types of events, and regardless of participants’ differing levels of emotion.

This ability to use linguistic shifts to exert conscious control over thoughts and actions appears to emerge as early as age five. People appear able to perform such shifts relatively seamlessly and effortlessly, and the benefits appear to extend over time.

How does self-distancing work? Lindsey Streamer and colleagues at the University of Buffalo (2017) examined the effects of self-distancing on participants’ cardiovascular response. They found that “participants who self-distanced by using non-first-person (vs. first-person) pronouns and their own name while preparing for a speech showed cardiovascular responses consistent with greater challenge while delivering the speech. Self-distancing did not, however, influence cardiovascular responses reflecting task engagement during the speech… These findings suggest self-distancing can lead to a positively valenced experience during active-performance stressors, rather than simply muted responses based on decreasing the stressor's self-relevance.” In other words, self-distancing works by empowering you in the face of the problem, not by distracting you from it.

Research has also shown that the technique works by reducing rumination, broadening perspective, and changing the way people perceive and evaluate their experience. Specifically, research has shown that self-distancing reduces people’s focus on the emotionally arousing features of their negative experience while reorienting them toward seeking insight and closure.

Kross and Ozlem Ayduk of the University of California, Berkeley, two leaders in this area, summarized the research by stating: “Collectively, these findings demonstrate how subtle shifts in the language people use to refer to themselves during introspection can influence their capacity to regulate how they think, feel, and behave under stress.”

The next time you are trying to think your way through a socially or emotionally stressful situation, talk to yourself about it in the third person, and you can see firsthand whether the technique works for you.

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