Stress relief: how the concept of “distanced self-talk” can help us to handle stressful situations

Posted by for Mental Health

Are you struggling to keep your stress levels under control while working from home? Here’s how the concept of ‘distanced self-talk’ could help you to cope.

One of the weirdest parts of working from home has to be the amount of time we spend with ourselves. Without the background noise of the office, people to talk to and watercooler chat to engage in, many of us now spend our days not saying much at all.

But just because we’re not talking to other people as often as we used to, doesn’t mean we’re not talking at all. In fact, our self-talk – or internal monologue, as it is often called – is still as active (and important) as ever.

If you’ve never come across the concept of ‘self-talk’ before, it’s essentially all the messages we send ourselves via an internal dialogue. 

For example, you might engage in negative self-talk when faced with a particularly challenging task – by telling yourself you’re “not good enough” or “unable to cope”. On the other hand, you might turn to positive self-talk to comfort yourself in a tricky situation – perhaps by telling yourself “you can do this” or “all you can do is your best”.

Although plenty of our self-talk tends to be unconscious, there are ways we can ‘harness’ our self-talk to boost our emotional resilience and help ourselves navigate the day-to-day stresses we might face.

In fact, according to a new study, distanced self-talk – where we use second or third person pronouns to distance ourselves from the stressful task we’re facing – could help us to better cope with stressful or emotionally-challenging situations.     

A girl looking in the mirror
By helping us to gain an outside perspective, distanced self-talk can help us to stay in control of our emotions during a stressful situation.

The study, conducted by psychologists at the University of Michigan, found that, no matter the intensity of the negative or challenging experience, distanced self-talk can reduce emotional reactivity – e.g. the extent to which your emotions control your response to a situation, compared to the rational part of your brain. In this way, distanced self-talk can help us to better regulate our emotions in stressful situations – an outcome which could help us to reduce the amount of stress we feel and respond in a more helpful and productive way.

So, how can we use distanced self-talk to better respond to stressful situations at work? As psychologist Noam Shpancer describes in Psychology Today: “In simple terms, the technique involves reflecting on your stressful experience from an outside perspective.”

He expands: “Instead of using the first person ‘I’ in your internal monologue, you can use your name, the second-person generic ‘you’, the third-person pronouns ‘he, she, they’ or even a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective.

“For example, let’s assume I’m facing a problem, or reflecting on an emotionally stressful situation I’ve experienced. Instead of thinking, ‘How will I solve this problem?’ or, ‘How am I feeling about what happened?’ I may ask myself ‘How is Noam going to solve this problem?’ or ‘How is Noam feeling about what happened?’ or ‘How will you solve the problem?’”

As Shpancer’s words highlight, by becoming more aware of the way we talk to ourselves – and shaping the messages we send to distance ourselves from the situation – we can put ourselves in a better position to cope with the stressful moments in our day. Indeed, instead of relieving stress that already exists, distanced self-talk could help us avoid getting stressed out in the first place.

So next time you’re faced with a stressful situation, why not give this simple technique a go? Not only is it super easy to do, but it could help you to feel more in control of your emotions. 

If working during the pandemic is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of relying on technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Our new Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of wellbeing during this strange time.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

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