One Small Thing

Quiet your anxiety by talking to yourself in the third person

Nervous about an upcoming presentation or job interview? You may be able to calm your anxiety — and actually do better — by simply talking to yourself in the third person, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that people create distance between themselves and whatever is causing negative emotions, like fear or anxiety, when they self-talk in the third person.

“It kind of switches you to a different mode of experiencing negative emotions when you use your name rather than the word, ‘I,’” explained the study’s lead author, Jason Moser, an associate professor in the department of psychology neuroscience program at Michigan State University. “It’s like you’re viewing it from an outsider perspective.”

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How does it work?

“Say I’m preparing to give a talk,” Moser said. “I might say, ‘Jason is really scared he’s going to botch the presentation and they’ll all think he’s stupid.’ Or, because flying is not my favorite thing, when we’re going through turbulence, I might say to myself, ‘Jason is really scared we’re going to crash, that this plane is going to fall from the sky.’ It really does help.”

Even though Moser’s previous studies had shown the method helped people deal with negative emotions, he wanted to get a better sense of why it worked. So he and some colleagues ran a couple of experiments.

In one, they asked 29 volunteers to look at a set of disturbing and frightening photos two times. One time they asked the volunteers to describe in the first person, that is, using "I," what they were feeling as they were looked at pictures ranging from a man pointing a gun at them to ones showing badly injured people. In another run, the volunteers looked at the same photos, but this time they were told to talk about their feelings in the third person.

As the volunteers watched and spoke, their brain waves were measured with an electroencephalograph, which revealed that emotional brain activity quickly decreased when they referred to themselves in the third person.

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In a second experiment, 50 volunteers had their brains scanned as they remembered painful experiences in their past. Again, they were told to either think about their feelings in the first person or in the third person. The scans showed that when people talked to themselves in the third person, there was less activity in a brain region that is involved in processing painful emotional events.

“You might be thinking about a bad breakup or being excluded from a group meeting,” Moser said. “By using your own name you can help calm down your emotions or reset them after a rejection experience.”

Moser suspects that the third person self-talk might help people with phobias. In fact, a future experiment will look at whether it will help people who are afraid of dogs or spiders.

The new study underscores the power of the language we use to tap into areas of the brain, said Cecile Ladouceur, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

The findings make a lot of sense to Mark Reinecke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “When we put something in first person there’s a heavier [emotional] load that makes it more difficult to reason about a problem clearly,” Reinecke said. “If you put the problem into the third person, it allows you to keep perspective on it and have a calmer response.”

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