Talking to yourself may seem weird, but it can be really good for you. It can ease loneliness, keep you organized, lower your stress levels, and even help you cope with cancer. Now it turns out that when you’re feeling stressed out, talking to yourself—as if you’re talking about yourself—has the added benefit of helping control your emotions and behavior. That’s what researchers from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University discovered in a recent study published online in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal.
The researchers, led by Jason Moser, PhD, associate professor of psychology, and director of Michigan State’s Clinical Psychology Lab, began with the notion that regulating emotions—as anyone can attest—is a tough thing to do. The researchers also knew from previous research that when we’re stressed out, talking to ourselves using our own name (rather than “I”) helps to control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. So Dr. Moser and colleagues wanted to go a step further and confirm that third-person self-talk facilitates that control without the cognitive effort that would otherwise be needed when talking to ourselves in the first person.
“People almost exclusively use names to refer to other people,” the researchers explain, and therefore, “there is a tight coupling between using proper names, and thinking about others—a coupling that is so tight that we expected using one’s own name to refer to the self would virtually automatically lead people to think about the self similarly to how they think about someone else.” Assuming that was correct, the researchers hypothesized that third-person self-talk should link up to reductions in emotional activity without having to exert extra cognitive activity.
To test their theory, the research team asked student volunteers to reflect on their feelings associated with viewing unpleasant pictures and/or recalling painful memories, either using “I” or their own name while doing so. The brain activity of the volunteers was measured using magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography. What the team found was that the students’ measurable emotional activity decreased relatively quickly when they spoke to themselves in the third person, without any corresponding increase in cognitive activity (compared with when they spoke to themselves in the first person).
Talking to oneself in the third person creates an automatic psychological distance between the person and the situation, Dr. Moser explained to MSU Today, and that distance smoothly facilitates self-control. More research will have to be done to confirm the findings, he notes, but there are lots of important implications regarding “our basic understanding of how self-control works, and how to help people control their emotions in daily life.” Give it a try the next time you’re feeling stressed out: Try talking about it—to yourself, in the third person. And keep it positive: Negative self-talk can be harmful.