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managing emotions

Managing Emotions Is Easier When You Talk To Yourself

Usually, when people talk about themselves in third person, they come across as narcissists, or slightly insane. But a new study illustrates that talking to yourself in the third person while dealing with high-stress situations may actually help you in managing emotions.

The study, led by psychology researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, indicates that such third-person self-talk may be a relatively effortless form of emotional self-control. The findings are published online in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal.

Researchers were able to identify that reflecting on one’s feelings in the third person makes them less emotionally reactive than thinking about the same feelings in the first person.

“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,” said Jason Moser, MSU associate professor of psychology. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”

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The study involved two experiments that both significantly reinforced this main conclusion around emotional management.

In one experiment, at Moser’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, participants viewed neutral and disturbing images and reacted to the images in both the first and third person while their brain activity was monitored. When reacting to the disturbing photos, participants’ emotional brain activity decreased very quickly when they referred to themselves in the third person.

The researchers also measured participants’ effort-related brain activity and found that using the third person was no more effortful than using first person self-talk. This bodes well for using third-person self-talk as an on-the-spot strategy for managing your emotions, Moser said, because many other forms of emotional control require significant thought and effort.

In the other experiment, led by U-M psychology professor Ethan Kross, who directs the Emotion and Self-Control Lab, participants reflected on painful experiences from their past using first and third person language while their brain activity was measured. The results were very similar to the MSU study, both in terms of the time it took for controlling emotions, and the effort required.

“What’s really exciting here,” Kross said, “is that the brain data from these two complimentary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.

With more research, this finding could lead to a new understanding of quick and easy emotional management tactics, and whether they might apply in children as well.

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