Stressed? Try Talking to Yourself Like This

What’s your favorite way to deal with stress? Hopefully you’ve developed a method that works for you, but a lot of adults don’t know how to deal with it.

According to the American Psychological Association Stress in America Survey, two in five adults have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods to cope with stress in the past month. Thirty-one percent said they missed a meal. And almost half said they’ve laid awake at night or lost patience with a partner because of stress.

Our favorite way of coping with stress is exercise or walking, the APA reported. But when you’re encountered with a stressful situation, you can’t always jump up and go for a bike ride or hit the gym. Psychology researchers have discovered an effective way to calm yourself down without expending any extra energy at all. All you have to do is talk to yourself.

Getting a little distance

Scientists at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan found that silently talking to yourself—in the third person, specifically—can help you effortlessly control your emotions. Their research suggests it’s more effective than first-person self-talk, which is how people usually talk to themselves.

Stressed pbs rewireThird-person self-talk works for the same reasons it can help to talk to an objective third party, like a therapist, about your problems. A little distance provides a different perspective.

“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, an author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at MSU, to the university. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”

Let’s say a weird interaction with a friend has left me upset. Thinking about my problems in the third person as if I’m someone else (“Why is Katie so upset?”) is less emotionally charged than asking the same thing of myself in the first person (“Why am I so upset?”). The researchers’ work suggests I’ll be able to more objectively determine what exactly bothered me and calm myself down by putting a little “psychological distance” between myself and my bad feelings.

Quick and effective

In one experiment in Moser’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, people looked at neutral and disturbing images and reacted to them in both the first and third person while hooked up to a machine that read their brain activity.

When they talked to themselves in the third person after seeing a disturbing image, their emotional brain activity decreased within one second.

The researchers also found that this third-person self-talk took no more effort than first-person self-talk. Other mental strategies for dealing with stress, like mindfulness or thinking positively, can take a great deal of mind-power and effort, Moser said.

Stressed pbs rewireAnother experiment, led by University of Michigan psychology professor Ethan Kross, showed that third-person self-talk eased the brain’s response to painful emotions more effectively than first-person self-talk did.

“What’s really exciting here 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,” Kross said. “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.”

Want more stress lifehacks? Here are some other ways to manage it:

1. Bake a cake

2. Watch a nature video

3. Examine the way your job is designed

4. Adopt a mindset of gratitude, and make connections with others

5. Meditate the easy way

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.