Feeling Stuck or Anxious? Change Your Story to Move Forward
Research shows how creating psychological distance makes you more resilient.
Posted December 29, 2018 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Whether we are thinking about events that happened in the past, are happening now, or will happen in the future, the stories we tell ourselves and the ways in which we think about negative events in our lives can influence our emotional reactions. Over-focusing on the negative emotional content of events or replaying them over and over in your mind can actually make you ruminate more and feel worse over time. Think about your last breakup or your last interaction with a mean person! It’s easy to just relive the feelings over and over again, feeling worse and creating more negative meanings with each new round.
But there is a silver lining! Recently, researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley have found that certain ways of thinking about events can actually be helpful and lead to new perspectives or diminished distress and anxiety.
In this article, you will read about three such perspective-taking tools and the research that supports them.
1. The “Fly on the Wall” Perspective
When you picture a negative event in your mind, you may imagine the event as if it is happening to you right now, with you at the center of things. However, it is also possible to picture the event from an “observer” perspective as if you were a fly on the wall, watching the event happening to a distant self. It turns out that adopting the “fly on the wall” approach can actually create psychological distance, which gives you a bit of space from being caught up in your negative thoughts and feelings about the event. In a series of studies, researchers compared the effects of reflecting on past emotional events (e.g., events that made them feel sad, anxious, or angry) from a self-immersed versus self-distanced perspective.
The results showed that those in the self-distanced group were less likely to re-experience the negative emotions associated with the event, were more likely to report thoughts about the event that reflected new insights and a changed perspective (e.g., new understandings of why you or others behaved as they did, more closure), and were less likely to ruminate about the event in the upcoming week.
Similar results were found when the participants focused on an anxiety-provoking future event. Those in the self-distanced group were more likely to think about the event as a challenge versus a threat, and they showed less physiological signs of anxiety (e.g., elevated heart rate or blood pressure) when thinking about the event. Statistical analyses showed that these effects may have been due to the self-distanced group picturing the upcoming event with less vivid imagery. Vivid imagery is known to create more intense negative emotions. Therefore, picturing an event with less vivid imagery should make it seem less threatening.
2. The “Not Me” Perspective
For most of us, it is easier to stay objective and give wiser advice when we are considering a friend’s problem rather than our own troubles. One reason for this may be that focusing on negative qualities of the self can create intense negative feelings. Thinking about ourselves as cowardly or unlovable or incompetent, for example, can create negative emotionality that interferes with problem-solving. Finding distance from the self may help us stay more objective and rational. Another way to find distance from the self, aside from imagery, is to talk about ourselves in the third person, either using our name or the pronouns “he” or “she” or “you,” rather than “I” or “me.”
The researchers tested this out by asking participants to “prepare themselves psychologically” for meeting a new person. One group was told to think about the upcoming interaction using “I” or “me” terms, and the other group was told to use their own names or non-first-person pronouns (e.g., “Melanie will tell jokes to make the other person comfortable” versus "I will tell jokes”). Both groups then met with a confederate of the opposite sex, and their interactions were rated by judges who did not know which condition the participants were in. As predicted, the judges rated the “Not Me” group as performing better overall than the “Me” group. The “Not Me” group also reported feeling less anxious during the interaction compared to the “Me” group.
3. The “Time Travel” Perspective
A third way to create some space from your immediate feelings about a situation is to picture how you might feel about this same situation in the future. Generally, most people believe that the future will be better than the past, and that time heals negative feelings. We also believe that we will likely get wiser and more objective with age. Thinking of a future self is another way of creating psychological distance from difficult feelings. In a series of studies, the researchers compared the effects of thinking about their stressors from a “near-future” perspective (one week from now) versus a “far-future” perspective (10 years from now). Using stressors ranging from work deadlines to the death of a spouse, participants who were instructed to adopt a “far-future” perspective reported less distress about the event they were thinking of. This result held both for completed events and those that were still ongoing. In another study, the researchers looked at various possible explanations for this effect and found that the key ingredient in reducing distress was “impermanence focus,” or telling yourself that your current feelings are temporary and will pass or diminish over time.
This exciting new line of research provides growing evidence that creating psychological distance from negative memories or threatening future events can help you regulate negative emotions or find less threatening, more objective ways to view the events. These techniques seem to help lessen the intensity of negative emotions so they don’t perpetuate future rumination or anxious anticipation. It’s all in the stories we tell ourselves!
Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. Self-Distancing: Theory, Research and Current Directions. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 55, 81–136 (2017).
White, R. E., Kuehn, M. M., Duckworth, A. L., Kross, E., & Ayduk, Ö. (2018, September 17). Focusing on the Future From Afar: Self-Distancing From Future Stressors Facilitates Adaptive Coping. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000491