Feeling Stressed? Try Talking to Yourself, But in Third Person

If you're feeling stressed out, try talking to yourself in third person. Getty Images/Bob Aylott

Many people encounter stress on a daily basis. Hopefully, most of us have friends who can help talk us off a ledge when things get rough. But sometimes the only person you have to talk to you is yourself, and science also shows it's a great idea.

A new study published in the July issue of Scientific Reports suggests talking to ourselves in the third person—but silently, in our heads—can help us regulate our emotions. And self-talk may be more useful than talking to ourselves out loud in the first person. (An added benefit: The silent aspect will also avoid a stressed-out individual from appearing kind of crazy.)

The study found uttering a few words of encouragement to ourselves—such as "Jess, you can make this deadline! Keep writing!"—can reduce the stress Jess may feel from the deadline.

As the researchers point out, many of us already talk to ourselves. "Self-talk is something we all do in our own minds," says Jason Moser, a psychology researcher at Michigan State University and lead author on the study. "We psych ourselves up for performances, mull over different choices and rethink things we have said or done—all through a self-talk narrative." And silent third-person self-talk—referring to ourselves by name and as "she" or "he" rather than the first-person "I" and "me"—"is a powerful tool for regulating emotions," Moser says.

Moser and his colleagues carried out two related experiments to demonstrate the positive effects of this inner-narrative approach. In the first, they showed 37 student volunteers both emotionally neutral and disturbing images. They asked the participants to react to each image in their head in both the first and third person. Throughout the experiment, Moser and his colleagues monitored their brain activity with electroencephalography, or EEG.

According to the findings, when participants talked to themselves in the third person while looking at disturbing images, such as a man holding a gun to his head, brain activity decreased in regions involved in emotions (the limbic system and amygdala). And that quietening happened very quickly, within one second. The participants also reported that third-person self-talk felt more natural and took much less effort, compared with first-person self-talk.

For the second experiment, participants were asked to think and silently reflect on painful experiences from their past through first- and third-person language. Using brain scans (fMRI) to measure activity, the researchers saw effects similar to those in the first experiment. That is, reflecting on painful or stressful experiences in the third person helped the participants better regulate their emotions.

Moser and his fellow researchers theorize that third-person self-talk "helps people gain just a bit of psychological distance to reflect on their thoughts and feelings," he says, "as if they are the thoughts and feelings of someone else."

Next, Moser and his colleagues are hoping to compare third-person self-talk to more traditional stress-reducing strategies like "cognitive reinterpretation" (thinking optimistically or more realistically). Future work could also compare the effects of third-person self-talk to mindfulness. Many people have learned to regulate stress and emotional response with meditation and mindfulness, a serene mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment. These techniques and exercises take much more skill and discipline than self-talk.

Talking to oneself is often teased as a sign of mental instability, but research suggests the habit is part of normal human brain processing. Studies have found that habitual self-talk can make a person smarter and more efficient in everyday life. One study found that self-talk makes it easier to find misplaced objects.

Despite all this evidence, self-talk doesn't get enough respect, says Moser, and isn't one of the first thing psychologists recommend for stress management. Moser thinks it should be.

"This would be a great application for people who struggle with anxiety and stress the most," he says. "I really think we have something powerful that will be applicable and relevant for lots of people."