Self-Distancing Can Reduce Anxiety And Stress

Written by Jim Folk
Written by Jim Folk
Last updated June 23, 2021
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New research confirms that self-distancing – talking to yourself in the third person – can reduce anxiety and stress.

Research conducted by Mark Seery, a University at Buffalo psychologist, has found that talking to yourself in the third person, which he calls “self-distancing,” can be an effective way to reduce anxiety and subsequent stress. This research confirms previous research that found talking to yourself in the third person can help control emotions.

Most people are aware that we talk to ourselves in our thoughts, which is often referred to as “self-talk.” But some people aren’t aware that the approach we use, and tone of that conversation, can make a great difference in how we respond to a situation or circumstance, which also affects how the body responds biologically (because of the close mind/body connection, our thoughts affect how the body functions).

Moreover, some people aren’t aware that we can CHOOSE how we talk to ourselves – using a different approach and tone – if we want to obtain a different cognitive, behavioral, and physiological outcome. Overcoming mental health challenges, such as anxiety disorder and depression, is about being aware of our self-talk and making healthy change.

This research and the previous research (as well as all of the data from cognitive/behavioral research) demonstrate that we can make a meaningful difference merely by changing our self-talk approach. Not only can changing our self-talk make a life experience difference, since the quality of our life experience is based on what we say to ourselves about it but changing our self-talk can also benefit the body physically, as well.

Sure, changing our self-talk might be easier said than done. But we can successfully make healthy change with the right help and support, such as that from a professional anxiety disorder therapist.

You can read the press release regarding this latest research below:

UB research shows how pronouns can be used to build confidence in stressful situations Self-distancing language can help us ‘see’ ourselves through someone else’s eyes


BUFFALO, N.Y. – You’re preparing for a major presentation. Or maybe you have a job interview. You could even be getting ready to finally ask your secret crush out on a date.

Before any potentially stressful event, people often engage in self-talk, an internal dialogue meant to moderate anxiety.

This kind of self-reflection is common, according to Mark Seery, a University at Buffalo psychologist whose new study, which applied cardiovascular measures to test participants’ reactions while giving a speech, suggests that taking a “distanced perspective,” or seeing ourselves as though we were an outside observer, leads to a more confident and positive response to upcoming stressors than seeing the experience through our own eyes. The findings, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology with co-authors Lindsey Streamer, Cheryl Kondrak, Veronica Lamarche and Thomas Saltsman, illustrate how the strategic use of language in the face of tension helps people feel more confident.

“Being a fly on the wall might be the way to put our best foot forward,” says Seery, an associate professor in UB’s Department of Psychology and an expert on stress and coping. “And one way to do that is by not using first-person pronouns like ‘I’. For me, it’s saying to myself, ‘Mark is thinking this’ or ‘Here is what Mark is feeling’ rather than ‘I am thinking this’ or ‘Here is what I’m feeling.’

“It’s a subtle difference in language, but previous work in other areas has shown this to make a difference – and that’s the case here, too.” Seery says most everyone engages in self-talk, but it’s important to understand that not all self-talk is equally effective when contemplating future performance. We can either self-distance or self-immerse.

For the study, researchers told 133 participants that a trained evaluator would assess a two-minute speech on why they were a good fit for their dream job. The participants were to think about their presentation either with first-person (self-immersing) or third-person pronouns (self-distancing).

While they delivered their speeches, researchers measured a spectrum of physiological responses (how fast the heart beats; how hard it beats; how much blood the heart is pumping; and the degree to which blood vessels dilated or constricted), which provided data on whether the speech is important to the presenter and the presenter’s level of confidence.

“What this allows us to do is something that hasn’t been shown before in studies that relied on asking participants to tell researchers about their thoughts and feelings,” says Seery. “Previous work has suggested that inducing self-distancing can lead to less negative responses to stressful things, but that can be happening because self-distancing has reduced the importance of the event.

“That seems positive on the face of it, but long-term that could have negative implications because people might not be giving their best effort,” says Seery. “We found that self-distancing did not lead to lower task engagement, which means there was no evidence that they cared less about giving a good speech. Instead, self-distancing led to greater challenge than self-immersion, which suggests people felt more confident after self-distancing.”

Seery points out that some of the most important moments in life involve goal pursuit, but these situations can be anxiety provoking or even overwhelming.

“Self-distancing may promote approaching them with confidence and experiencing them with challenge rather than threat.”

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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including Self-Distancing Can Reduce Anxiety And Stress.