Everyone gets upset sometimes, and most people can probably relate to feeling like they’ve lost control of their emotions at one point or another.
So here’s a simple way to keep your emotions in check next time you’re stressed: Talk yourself through it silently in the third person, according to a pair of studies from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.
That’s right—referring to oneself in the third person isn’t just the only way Elmo can express himself, nor is it merely the best way for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to ask if you can smell what he’s cooking; it’s also a good tactic to keep your emotions under control.
Usually, people reflect on their experiences from a first-person perspective (e.g., “Why am I so stressed about this?”). But when researchers at MSU had people react to triggering images in both the first and third person while keeping tabs on their brain activity, the researchers found that participants reacted less emotionally when they used third-person self-talk. This may be because taking a third-person point of view helps people remove themselves from the situation and approach it more objectively.
“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves [as] they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain,” Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology at MSU, said in a press release. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
The Michigan study also monitored people’s brain activity, but had them reflect on painful experiences from their own pasts. The results? As in the MSU study, third-person self-talk led to less activity in the part of the brain associated with that type of painful reflection—better emotional regulation, in other words. Both studies also concluded that talking it out with yourself in the third person doesn’t require any more effort than first-person self-talk would, according to Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self Control Lab at U-M.
So next time you’re talking yourself through something stressful, take a page from LeBron James’ book and go for a third-person approach. Just, please, do it silently.
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