How to use self-distancing to cope with negative emotions

Acknowledging and understanding our emotions can change how we react to stressful and challenging events.

Unfortunately, many people are caught up in cycles of rumination on everything wrong in their lives. They repeatedly focus on what they feel and why they feel a certain way, which makes them feel even worse.

For many people, even though living outside of the present moment feel stressful, they can’t seem to find a way out. They easily find themselves reliving nostalgic memories, imagining the worst possible scenarios, ruminate on upsetting recollections or become consumed with anxiety about the future.

When you take yourself out of the picture, you gain a more holistic and rational view of an event.

To give you some distance from your own situation and events in order to get a more complete view of negative events, psychologists Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk developed a psychological hack called “self-distancing.

“Distancing’ refers to the ability to view one’s own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of ‘reality’ rather than as reality itself,” according to Brad A. Alford (a Professor of Psychology at The University of Scranton for 23 years) and Aaron T. Beck (an influential psychologist widely regarded as the father of cognitive therapy) in their book, The integrative power of cognitive therapy.

When you effectively practice self-distancing, you can significantly reduce re-experiencing negative emotions in the future.

In an article published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Ethan and Ozlem, who have studied the effects of self-distancing across contexts, write that self-distancing “leads people to focus relatively less on recounting the emotionally evocative details of their experience and relatively more on recasting it in ways that promote insight and closure.”

Self-distancing allows you to ‘take a step back’ from your experience so that you can work through it more effectively. It’s like taking a view of your own problems, issues and emotional stress through different eyes that are less entangled in the moment.

“We likened this process to the experience of seeking out a friend’s counsel on a difficult problem. Whereas it is often challenging for the person experiencing a personal dilemma to reason objectively about their own circumstances, friends are often uniquely capable of providing sage advice because they’re not involved in the experience — they are psychologically removed from the event, ” they added.

Self-distancing is one of the great ways to think more clearly, rationally, and objectively, especially in the midst of emotional situations or big decisions.

“Put differently: When we take ourselves out of the picture, we often gain a much fuller and more holistic view of it; a view that promotes thinking alongside feeling, and a view that yields greater wisdom,” writes Brad Stulberg of The Cut.

When you improve your psychological distance from yourself, you become capable of reasoning constructively about your frustrations and events.

In a series of 3 studies, participants reported feeling less anxious when they imagined stressful future events — like speaking in front of a crowd — as an outside observer as opposed to an active participant.

The researchers observed, “Adopting a self-distanced (vs. self-immersed) perspective when reflecting on a future stressor led to lower levels of anxiety as well as lower imagery vividness.”

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,” explains lead author Rachel White, a psychologist at Hamilton College.

When you yourself out of stressful and negative situations, you become more capable of thinking about them rationally, you react better to situations, and experience less emotional distress.

Next time you’re faced with challenging emotions, complicated situations, or difficult decisions— try taking a mental step back. Consider how a thoughtful friend might respond to the situation from a different perspective.

If you are worried about thinking about events and situations for a long period of time, write about it. Expressive writing about distressful situations is an effective way to gain a better perspective, according to research.

Similar studies show that when you think or journal in the third person rather than in the first person — for example, “Tom is running into challenges with his exercise routine” versus “I am running into challenges with my exercise routine” —you evaluate yourself more clearly and think about practical and rational ways to overcome your challenges.

The good news about expressive writing is that it allows you to reflect on that same experience again in the future without becoming overwhelmed by negative affect.

To direct your attention from your immediate, concrete circumstances, focus on your future self. Ask yourself, “How would I feel about this one week from now or ten years from now?” Thinking in that way will help you put your choices, actions, and habits in the right perspective to support your emotional recovery.

When you assess a challenge from the outside looking in, your response changes. You can go from ruminating to problem-solving, from being overly self-critical and negative to being cautiously optimistic.

This article first appeared on Medium.