Whether you like to admit it or not, you’ve probably talked to yourself at some point in your life. Some people do it more than others, but new research has found that self-talking in a particular way can actually help you cope with stressful situations — and you don’t even need to do it out loud.
Psychology researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan found that silently talking to yourself in the third person may help you control your emotions and feel less stressed during a pressure-cooker situation. As a refresher, talking to yourself in the third person means you’d say your name instead of “I” (e.g., “Chris is upset”); speaking in the second person means using the word “you” to reference yourself (“You are upset”); while talking in the first person means using “I” or “me” (“I am upset”).
In the study, which was published in Scientific Reports, the scientists conducted a series of experiments that either had participants look at neutral and disturbing brain images or reflect on painful experiences from their past while using first- and third-person language as their brain activity was monitored. In both experiments, the participants’ emotional brain activity decreased very quickly when they referred to themselves in the third person, making them feel less stressed than when they referred to themselves in the first person.
Study co-author Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Beauty that he and his colleague Ethan Kross, PhD, of the University of Michigan, decided to study the topic after looking for new and easy ways that people could cope with stress in the moment. “We noticed that people tend to talk to themselves in the third person naturally,” Moser says, citing the example of LeBron James talking about his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, which James admitted was an emotional decision. But the NBA star added at the time, “I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”
Moser says he and Kross thought this way of speaking might be more than a “weird quirk”: “Maybe it’s something that people do unknowingly to help in these stressful situations.”
He says that a lot of people tend to do this already. “We think it really is this automatic switch in the brain where you go from thinking about yourself and using ‘I’ to getting a little psychological distance from yourself by using your own name,” Moser explains. Essentially, using your own name instead of “I” can help you think a little more clearly and less emotionally about a stressful situation — almost as if you’re looking at someone else going through the experience and not yourself.
Talking to yourself in the third person is one of the fundamental techniques that a therapist is taught and utilizes to help people with stress, clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Beauty. “This process of providing objective perspective to one’s life, feelings, or behavior has a healing power that is well documented,” he says.
Referring to yourself in the second person may also help — Moser says he’s noticed a lot of athletes do this, especially after losses. “We don’t know exactly when this kicks in, but it seems people move a little bit away from the self when they’re dealing with something difficult,” he says. “‘I’ might be beneficial when you’re trying to do something positive.”
That’s not the only verbal reassurance you can give yourself, Mayer says, but these tend to be personal. “Each person must develop their own ‘mantra(s)’ that work to help in the moment for stress management,” Mayer says. “You do this by experimenting with many different mantras and settle in on the ones that work the best.”
So if you find that you refer to yourself in the third person when you’re frazzled, don’t think there’s something wrong with you — it’s pretty normal, and it actually could be a sign that you’re coping well with the situation.
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