Picking the Right Pronoun May Help Self-Talk Ease Anxiety

Picking the Right Pronoun May Help Self-Talk Ease Anxiety

Self-talk is common, a kind of an internal dialogue commonly used to moderate anxiety before a potentially stressful event. But not all self-talk is equally effective, and that is where the notion of “self-distancing” comes in.

New research suggest a self-distancing language, such as using the third person, can help us see ourselves through someone else’s eyes and can lead to improved confidence and performance.

“Being a fly on the wall might be the way to put our best foot forward,” said researcher Dr. Mark Seery, an associate professor in the University of Buffalo’s Department of Psychology and an expert on stress and coping.

“And one way to do that is by not using first-person pronouns like ‘I’. For me, it’s saying to myself, ‘Mark is thinking this’ or ‘Here is what Mark is feeling’ rather than ‘I am thinking this’ or ‘Here is what I’m feeling.’ It’s a subtle difference in language, but previous work in other areas has shown this to make a difference — and that’s the case here, too.”

Mark Seery, a University at Buffalo discovered that taking a “distanced perspective,” or seeing ourselves as though we were an outside observer, leads to a more confident and positive response to upcoming stressors than seeing the experience through our own eyes.

In the new study, investigators applied cardiovascular measures to test participants’ reactions while giving a speech. Researchers told 133 participants that a trained evaluator would assess a two-minute speech on why they were a good fit for their dream job.

The participants were to think about their presentation either with first-person (self-immersing) or third-person pronouns (self-distancing).

While they delivered their speeches, researchers measured a spectrum of physiological responses. Parameters included heart rate, and heart volume (how much blood the heart is pumping and the degree to which blood vessels dilated or constricted).

The data helped investigators correlate the self-talk perspective to data on whether the speech is important to the presenter and the presenter’s level of confidence.

“What this allows us to do is something that hasn’t been shown before in studies that relied on asking participants to tell researchers about their thoughts and feelings,” Seery said.

“Previous work has suggested that inducing self-distancing can lead to less negative responses to stressful things, but that can be happening because self-distancing has reduced the importance of the event. That seems positive on the face of it, but long-term that could have negative implications because people might not be giving their best effort,” he said.

“We found that self-distancing did not lead to lower task engagement, which means there was no evidence that they cared less about giving a good speech. Instead, self-distancing led to greater challenge than self-immersion, which suggests people felt more confident after self-distancing.”

The findings, with co-authors Lindsey Streamer, Cheryl Kondrak, Veronica Lamarche and Thomas Saltsman, are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Source: University of Buffalo

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