Talking to Ourselves May Help Us Control Our Emotions

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People who speak to themselves in the third-person are more likely to be able to control their emotions during stressful times, says a new study led by Jason Moser at Michigan State University.

Participants were asked to reflect on their feelings after viewing aversive images and remembering painful memories using “I” or their name while researchers measured their neural activity. Moser said the study was based off a prediction about how people refer to others by names and how it could affect one’s brain if they referred to themselves by their own name.

Credit: We Make Noise/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third-person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain,” Moser said to The University Paper. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”

“What’s really exciting here is that the brain data from these two complementary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation,” said U-M psychology professor Ethan Kross. “If this ends up being true — we won’t know until more research is done – there are lots of important implications these findings have for our basic understanding of how self-control works, and for how to help people control their emotions in daily life.”

Related: Here’s Why Talking to Yourself Is Healthy

The study authors said the results contradict current findings that declare self-control and emotional regulation as effortful. They said the results suggest third-person speech can help with emotional control without recruiting cognitive control.

“This is not to say that other forms of automatic self-control do not exist,” the authors wrote. “Rather, our findings add to this work by demonstrating how a linguistic shift that promotes psychological distance from the self modulates emotional responses.”

The researchers said by having people reflect on their emotional experiences using their name quickly changes the way emotions are represented. This allows people to reflect on themselves the way they would reflect on others.

Current findings suggest that third-person self-talk doesn’t recruit cognitive control like first-person self-talk does, and the study does not suggest that cognitive processing is not involved in third-person self-talk, the authors wrote.

“What our findings do suggest is that third-person self-talk does not recruit the network of brain regions typically implicated in the cognitive control of emotion,” they said.

Related: Swearing Heals Emotional Pain, Too

Tori Linville

Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.