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Using Temporal Distancing to Cope With Stress

Research shows how imagining yourself in the future may help you manage stress.

Key points

  • Temporal distancing happens when a person takes a current situation and thinks about their reaction to it in the far-off future.
  • A team of researchers studied what happens when people use temporal distancing to cope with stressful circumstances in everyday life.
  • The results showed that temporal distancing is generally linked to more pleasant feelings and feeling better on any given day when used more.
Brady Knoll/Pexels
Source: Brady Knoll/Pexels

Although some of us experience more stress-inducing situations than others, stress is certainly nothing new to anyone. If someone were to ask you what sorts of moments felt stressful recently, your brain likely wouldn’t have a hard time coming up with a few instances or several.

What would you say if someone asked how you cope with those moments? Would the way you think about the time span of your outlook toward the straining stuff of life come to mind?

This brings us to a strategy called temporal distancing. It involves imagining how you’ll react in the future to a nerve-wracking situation you’re dealing with right now. For example, let’s say you’re exhausted as you frantically try to get a work project turned in, or perhaps you’re feeling down after an argument with someone you care about. If you picture your outlook toward the situation several months or a few years from now and think about how it’s not really going to matter so much by then, you’re engaging in temporal distancing. But what impact does this approach have?

In a recently published paper, researchers explored what happens when people use temporal distancing in their everyday lives. The researchers referred to experiments that have supported the usefulness of this approach in controlled settings. Still, they noted that the use of temporal distancing in everyday life had not been explored. To address this knowledge gap, participants completed a diary for eight days. The individuals gave information such as the main stressor each day, their feelings, and whether they engaged in temporal distancing. This approach allowed the research team to look at what happened when people generally tended to use temporal distancing (i.e., some people used it more than others) and what happened daily when a specific individual used it more or less often.

The research revealed that the folks who generally engaged in temporal distancing more regularly tended to experience more pleasant emotions (e.g., happy, calm). The results also showed that when a person engaged in more temporal distancing on a particular day, they were more apt to notice more pleasant and fewer unpleasant emotions (e.g., sad, anxious).

The research team was correct in noting that these findings need to be replicated among people from different cultures (everyone was in California) and different genders (all of the participants identified as women); they also noted that this strategy might be more helpful in coping with certain types of situations than others. That being said, the researchers were also right in referring to the potential value of teaching and learning to use temporal distancing. So the next time you’re up against a challenging moment, perhaps you might try considering how the size of what you’re facing today just might feel scaled down in 2024 or 2025.


Benkley, D., Willroth, E. C., Ayduk, O., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2023). Short-term implications of long-term thinking: Temporal distancing and emotional responses to daily stressors. Emotion, 23(2), 595–599.

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