Third-person self-talk. Effectively calms you down.

What do you do when anxiety shows up? 

We all get anxious, it is a normal experience. But when it gets out of hand, overwhelming us, what can we do? Learning the techniques of anxiety management now will put you quickly back in charge next time anxiety shows up.

One of my clients is a personal trainer. He thinks anxiety management is a bit like training for a 5K run. You won't just turn up on the day and hope for the best. You build up your stamina and strength with regular practice. Practising the skills now so you will be confident of managing well when the time comes. Think about anxiety management as a toolkit full of useful tools that you know how to use.

One of the tools worth developing is to talk to yourself in the “third person”. This means using your name (Wilma, Scott, Connor) instead of I and Me. When I suggest this, my clients give me the squinty look. It does see a strange suggestion. But it works.

When you start to notice anxious symptoms, your inner self-talk might be something like “Oh no, here it comes again. I can’t stand this! Why does this keep happening?” The symptoms are distressing so it is not surprising that when you spot them, your thoughts are powerfully emotional and you feel worried whether you can cope. 

Changing your self-talk to the third person calms you down and you are less likely to get caught up in your feelings. If you are Wilma, you might say “Wilma has noticed her heart is racing and she is getting upset.” Or Duncan might say to himself (and this can be silent or out loud) “Duncan has noticed that he is sweating and he is feeling awkward and embarrassed”.

The effect of changing your self-talk in this way is to cool your response. It gives you a moment to pause and refocus.  It is a very effective way of managing anxiety. But don’t just take my word for it.

Until recently, I had not found any research to back up this approach. But last year, Jason Moser of Michigan State University Department of Psychology and colleagues published a paper about this approach in Nature. Nature is one of the world’s top-rated academic journals and is highly selective about what it publishes. So we can take this research seriously.

The conclusion of the research is that third-person self-talk improves emotional regulation, so that you can control your emotions more effectively. Not only that, but this regulation requires little conscious thinking effort.  Usually, getting your emotions back under control  takes a lot of effort and the frustration of trying can make you even more anxious. Third-person self-talk, it turns out, requires no conscious effort. It just happens all by itself. Why not give it a try?

The idea that got the researchers started is that the use of the third person is very tightly bound up with the idea of other people.

The researchers wanted to know if third-person self-talk would confuse our brains into thinking we are talking about someone else. They wanted to know if we talk about ourselves in the third person, does it feel to us like we are talking about that bloke over there? Or that girl in the red coat? Because if it were, it would suggest that we could think about our own emotions as calmly as we do when observe someone else. We would become an observer rather than a participant, resulting in less emotional reaction. We would feel less overwhelmed. And this is exactly what they found. When we say "He looks sad" we are probably right. But we don't feel sad. We notice the other person's emotions, but we are not experiencing them ourselves. Seeing that sadness, our emotion might be sympathy.

This is what the researchers write about the results they found. “These findings suggest that third-person self-talk facilitates emotional control without recruiting cognitive control. These results stand in contrast to much of the extant work which typically conceive of these processes as effortful. This is not to say that other forms of automatic self-control do not exist. Rather our findings add to this work by demonstrating how a linguistic shift promotes psychological distance from the self .

Anxiety is normal, but when it becomes overwhelming, we need to take action. Shifting to the third-person is a skill and the more you practice the easier it becomes, so that when you need it, it is ready and waiting in your toolkit. Third-person self-talk gives you a moment to pause and reflect. You will feel more detached, your mind will be calmer. And this means that you can think more clearly about what to do to make your situation better. And that feels so much better than feeling smothered by our emotions and out of control.

And if you need help with managing your anxiety, get in touch with me.

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