You could be running a marathon, heading into a job interview or about to get on stage to perform – stress, anxiety and nervousness are feelings we’re all too familiar with.
But what if scientists handed you a simple tactic to help you cope during these challenging, nerve-wracking times?
Simply talk to yourself in the third person and encourage and coach yourself that way to help calm your emotions, American scientists out of Michigan say.
It could be as simple as telling yourself, “Come on Johnny, you can do this,” or “It’s going to be OK, I believe in you, Johnny” just like you’d motivate and assure a loved one.
“Essentially we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain,” Dr. Jason Moser, a Michigan State University professor, explained.
“That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions,” he said.
You could even work through problems by talking to yourself in the third person. Say Johnny is upset about getting dumped. Instead of ruminating, he can ask himself in the third person: why is Johnny upset?
Turns out, you’re less “emotionally reactive” when you address yourself that way instead of questioning, “Why am I upset?”
Moser’s team conducted two studies to figure out the efficacy of speaking to yourself in the third person.
In the first experiment, participants looked at neutral and disturbing images, such as having a gun held to their heads.
The study participants’ emotional brain activity didn’t act up on electroencephalograph monitoring as much and decreased even more when they considered what was going on through the third person lens.
They even measured brain activity in thought and learned that third person thinking wasn’t more work for the brain than talking to yourself using first person self-talk.
In a second study, the researchers had study participants reflect on painful experiences. They had to describe what happened to them in first- and third-person language while their brain activity was measured using fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging.
In this case, there was less brain activity in the region associated with pain when the volunteers told their stories using a third-person narrative.
Once again, it didn’t take more effort for people to talk about themselves in the third person either.
The scientists say the research is burgeoning but promising.
“If this ends up being true – we won’t know until more research is done – there are lots of important implications these findings have for our basic understanding of how self-control works, and for how to help people control their emotions in daily life,” Dr. Ethan Kross, a study co-author, said.
Read the full findings published in the journal Scientific Reports.