Talking to Yourself in the Third Person Can Lower Stress and Negative Emotions

A new study finds that talking to yourself in the third person may help deal with stress.


If you are feeling stressed, try talking to yourself silently in the third person. That can help you control difficult emotions, says the first-of-its kind study by psychology researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of Michigan.

What they found is that talking to yourself in the third person during stressful moments may work better than giving yourself a first-person talk. Let’s say your name is John and you are very upset. Asking “Why is John upset?” would cause less emotional reaction than “Why am I upset?” and allow you to start dealing with the underlying emotions.

Jason Moser, MSU associate professor of psychology, explained why this approach works:

“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,” pointed out Moser. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”

The study involved two experiments, with one requiring participants to react to neutral or disturbing images in both the first and third person. Their brain activity was monitored during that time by an electroencephalograph. When the subjects were shown disturbing photos like a man holding a gun to their heads, their emotional brain activity decreased quickly (within 1 second) if they they referred to themselves in the third person.

The researchers also found employing third-person speech is no more taxing on your brain than talking in first person. In comparison, other forms of emotional regulation, like mindfulness, require considerable mental effort, said Moser.

Another experiment had participants recounting painful experiences from their past, using first and third person language, while they were undergoing fMRI imaging. 

Similarly, when talking in third person, participants had less activity in the brain region used for reflecting on painful emotional situations. 

“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, “ said University of Michigan psychology professor Ethan Kross. “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.”

You can read the study here, published in Scientific Reports.

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