The scary thing about stress and other mental health issues is that they have a way of sneaking up on us. Often, we don’t think we have a problem until we realize we have a huge problem that we have no choice but to deal with. Maybe stress leads to a sudden outburst to a client, threatening your job. Maybe stress causes you to become an insomniac who is too tired to drive the kids to school. The list could go on endlessly, but the point is that mental problems often catch us by surprise.
But why is that?
There are certain factors involved, but the biggest issue we have is our inability to objectively (third person) assess our actions and behaviors. We almost always think of ourselves subjectively (first person), because people who think of themselves in the third person are kind of weird, right?
I’m not here to tell you that’s untrue. It is weird to go around talking to and about yourself in the third person. I’m not advocating that you do so all the time, but a recent study may make you consider referring to yourself in the third person some of the time. Here’s why you should consider this.
The uniqueness of this work
The study comes out of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. It’s described as a “first-of-its-kind” study, and I think that’s a fair assessment. I will caution that because it is such a unique look at the human brain and our emotions, the study itself can’t be the final verdict on any of the information they’ve presented. However, their findings are worth discussing.
What did they find?
The researchers for this study believe that simply silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions. The theory is that our brains are programmed to deal with emotional problems differently for ourselves than we would for another person. If I find myself angry about something, I know there are certain ways to calm myself. I know what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. Once I stop focusing on the anger itself, I can begin to deal with my anger in the ways I know how.
However, what if I see someone around me who is angry? If it’s a friend or family member, I might engage and try to help them. If it’s a stranger on the street, I’m probably more likely to avoid them or walk the opposite direction. No matter what option I choose, there’s always a difference between my subjective and objective responses. What the researchers studied was brain activity at work while these responses happened.
What they found was that referring to yourself in the third person leads you to think about yourself more similarly to how you think about others. It helps you gain psychological distance from your experience, which, in turn, helps regulate emotions.
Goal is objective analysis
If you’re interested in trying this experiment out, it’s important to get over the idea of how weird it is to talk to or about yourself in the third person. Yes, it’s weird. I get it. When I first tried this, that was my first thought, too, but once I accepted that and moved on, I started to see that these ideas might actually work quite well. The researchers found that if I ask myself, “Why is Jay upset?” instead of, “Why am I upset?” I will have a less emotionally reactive response. I’m not making an emotionless decision. I’m just giving my objective analysis some separation from my normal (subjective) emotional behavior.
I won’t bore you with all the details of their research, but they also looked at how people deal with painful emotional experiences from their past. They compared the brain activity of the same person telling the same story. The story was told in the first person and then again in the third person. Third-person storytelling required no more effort, and the brain scans displayed less activity in the brain region related to painful emotional experiences. This suggests better emotional regulation.
Stress can rule your life if you let it, but there are lots of ways we can all push back. The best things for me, personally, have been to get plenty of sleep, improve my diet and prioritize exercise. That’s all fairly standard, of course, but when I see how well 10 minutes of meditation a day improves my mood, I’m reminded of how valuable the right nontraditional methods can also be. I’ve only tried talking to myself in the third person for a couple of days, and it always feels weird at first. However, I do believe there’s something to this theory. For me, it seems to slow the world down and make it easier for me to decide what needs to be done without so much emotion clouding my judgment.
Is this the right thing for you? You won’t know until you try it. Good luck!
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.