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Talking to Yourself in the Third Person Can Calm You Down

But please: do it silently.

by Amber Brenza
Aug 1 2017, 10:47pm

Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

There's a conversation going on in your head right now. It's with yourself—though you've likely paused it to read this article—but you'll pick it back up when you're done, if not before. That internal monologue guides what we think, feel, and do on a moment-to-moment basis. Now, researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan have discovered a new way to make that self-talk work for, not against, you during times of stress: Referring to yourself in the third person.

It sounds douchey—and, OK, it is kind of douchey when people actually talk about themselves out loud in the third person—but hear us out. The news comes from a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, which found that silently talking to yourself in the third person can help better control your emotions than talking to yourself in the first person, and without any extra effort.

It's because using the third person in self-talk can help you distance yourself from the stressful situation, they say. "Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others," Jason Moser, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University said in a release. "That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions." Kind of like how you're nicer when talking about your friends' problems than you are to yourself in your head.

The study was split up into two experiments: During the first, participants were shown both neutral and disturbing images and reacted to them in the first person and the third person (" This photo makes [me] feel ____" versus " This photo makes [their name] feel ____"). During this portion, participants' brain activity was monitored with an electroencephalogram (EEG). The researchers found that when participants were shown the disturbing photos, their emotional brain activity decreased really quickly (within one second) when they referred to themselves in the third person. The effort it took for the participants to think of themselves in the third person was also recorded, and it was found that third-person self-talk didn't take any extra effort than self-talk in the first person.

For the second experiment, researchers asked participants to recall past painful experiences using both first person and third person language, while their brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The findings were similar to that of the first experiment: third-person self-talk resulted in less brain activity in a region typically involved in reflection of painful experiences and emotions than when participants spoke to themselves in the first person; one still taking no more effort than the other.

Though more research is needed, study authors are hopeful that these findings will help people have a greater sense of self-control and be able to regulate their emotions in daily life. Just do everyone a favor and talk to yourself silently.

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