To put your problems in perspective, it helps to give yourself some objective distance.
But when our problems only exist in our heads, stepping back from the issues can be challenging, if not impossible. That’s why psychology research has found solutions to create mental distance between our minds and our anxiety.
Thinking in the third-person decreases your stress
If you can’t take a literal break from your own brain, try putting some linguistic distance in your head by thinking of yourself in the third-person.
A recent study published in Scientific Reports found that thinking of yourself in the third-person can be an effective way to control your thoughts and behaviors under pressure. The researchers recruited participants to recall painful autobiographical memories using either “I” or their name. Participants who had to recall these memories with “I” statements reported much higher distress than those who got to talk about these memories with some linguistic distance.
In the study, the researchers suggested that the pronoun switch makes a difference because “language rapidly shapes people’s emotional experiences.” When you’re under extreme stress and anxiety, your world can constrict to your own feelings of panic. When alarm bells are ringing in your head, you’re unable to think clearly. That’s why the researchers suggested that “individuals who are excessively self-focused in the face of negative experiences” would benefit the most from this technique. It forces you out of your head and gives you some distance to sort through your thoughts.
Imagine that a friend is in your situation
If you struggle with the idea of thinking of yourself in the third-person, try thinking of how you would approach your problem if the same problem was happening to a close friend.
We tend to be much harder on ourselves than we would be on people who are our close friends. This finding is backed by cognitive behavioral therapy. In his book on anxiety therapy, cognitive behavioral therapist David D. Burns discusses how he uses a Double-Standard role play technique with his patients.
“If you discover that you’d be more compassionate and objective when talking to a friend, ask yourself if you’f be willing to talk to yourself in the same way,” Burns advises. In one scenario the book details, a patient was able to work through his self-defeating thoughts over a breakup after he was told to role-play how he would advise a close friend going through the same rejection.
When this patient heard his own mean thoughts about himself told to a friend, he realized that the thoughts were irrational and he was able to change how he felt about the breakup.
These mental techniques are teaching your mind to attack problems from different angles, and not dwell in the negative. When you think of your problems in the voice of a friend, you’re still just talking to yourself, but the technique can give us needed compassionate distance to process our emotions objectively.