• Robb G. Best

Stressed? Watch Your Thoughts For This Word

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that these are stressful times. A deadly pandemic, economic troubles, and a frighteningly divided political sphere all make for a challenging environment, no matter what your goals are. What if there was an easy way to boost your emotional intelligence, gain perspective, and cut your stress levels all in one go?

Posting on the blog for Psychology Today, Noam Shpancer Ph.D. has some thoughts on how to make this happen. The technique is simple enough: pay attention to your own thoughts, and the way you frame the difficulties you face. Then, nix the "I".

Most of us have a tendency to organize our thoughts in terms of that one-letter word. We think, "How will I ever get this done in time?" or "I have way too much on my plate" or "I'm so stressed out." However, in Shpancer's post, he reviews research for what's called "distanced self-talk," in which you gain perspective on your own negative emotional reactions by thinking of yourself in the second or third person.

For instance, instead of "How can I get this done?", Shpancer would recommend switching to "How can you get this done?" or "How can Marta get this done?" (Provided your name is Marta, of course.)

It may sound awkward or silly at first, but Shpancer notes there are real benefits to looking at your problems outside of the lens of me and I. Words like that can have tremendous power.

"Indeed," writes Shpancer, "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."

He notes that a 2012 University of Michigan study by psychologists Ethan Kross and Igor Grossman found that priming participants to think about issues that affect them personally from a distanced perspective enhanced their reasoning and wisdom. Two years later, in 2014, a series of studies by Kross and colleagues examined people's stress levels about activities that tend to get the heart pumping, like making good first impressions or public speaking. The results found that the distanced self-talk group performed better (judged by objective graders) while also experiencing less stress.

Shpancer adds that in 2019, Anna Dorfman and her team at the University of Waterloo asked study participants to journal about challenging experiences they faced for four weeks, using either a self-immersed or self-distanced approach. In just four weeks, the self-distanced group showed increases in positive feelings.

Got kids? Good news: Shpancer says that the ability to exert control over your thoughts by switching to second or third person can start as early as five years old.

How does it work? Shpancer writes that distanced self-talk reduces rumination (getting lost in recurring worries), widens perspective, and even adjusts how you take in your experiences. "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."

So the next time you find yourself facing a metaphorical mountain, don't ask yourself "Can I do this?" Ask "Can you do this?" and see what happens.

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