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The Art Of Self-Distancing

Reflecting on upcoming events from an outside perspective may reduce anxiety about what's to come.


Most people are experts at living outside of the present moment—at any time, we can easily find ourselves reliving a nostalgic memory or imagining an unrealized fantasy. For many, these moments are stressful: People may ruminate on upsetting recollections or become consumed with anxiety about the future.

A technique known as self-distancing—reflecting on memories like a fly on the wall, rather than as an active participant—has been shown to help people cope with unpleasant feelings about the past. Now, evidence suggests it may also help temper stressful visions of the future. In a series of three studies published in Emotion, participants reported feeling less anxious when they imagined stressful future events—like taking a test or speaking in front of a crowd—as an outside observer as opposed to an active participant.

The further off in time something is, the researchers note, the more abstractly we imagine it. Self-distancing may reduce anxiety about what's to come because it adds an additional layer of separation from already hazy visions of the future. Viewing our prospects from a third-person perspective may also make us more likely to notice aspects of the event we wouldn't otherwise consider, explains lead author Rachel White, a psychologist at Hamilton College. By self-distancing, "I'm more likely to look at the big picture and say, 'Maybe this isn't going to be so bad after all.'"