Even if you consider yourself a glass-half-full type of person, negative thoughts can be really hard to shake at times. Maybe it was an email from your boss that definitely did not find you well or a snarky comment from your partner. Or perhaps you yourself are the source of the cynical, repetitive prattle taking root in your brain, such as telling yourself you aren’t good enough or ruminating about a mistake you made weeks ago. The secret to stopping these intrusive, unproductive mental messages? Two words: psychological distancing.
“Psychological distancing is the ability to take a step back and reflect on our circumstances from a more objective perspective, outside of ourselves,” explains Ethan Kross, PhD, one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. He calls this type of internal dialog “chatter,” which is also the name of his new book ($28). Learning to stop negative, obsessive thoughts—whether the source is you or someone else—in their tracks can help to turn the voice in your head into a positive motivator that will improve your overall emotional health.
In its simplest form, psychological distancing means looking at something from an outsider’s frame of reference, such as a friend’s. This can help prevent disorienting self-talk from becoming persistent, leading to bad moods, anxiety and depression—all of which puts a strain on personal relationships. But can something this simple really stop negative thoughts from spiraling? According to science, yes.
Why psychological distancing stops obsessive thoughts
The reason why we focus so intensely on negative thoughts is to work through them. “We don’t focus on them out of the joy of being miserable,” Dr. Kross says. But he explains the problem is that our personal emotions get in the way of objective problem-solving, therefore delaying how quickly we stop mulling it over in our minds and move on.
“What we know from scientific research is that taking a step back leads to a more objective perspective,” he says. “It’s hard to do that when we’re so immersed in emotion.” In one scientific study Dr. Kross conducted, he asked a group of participants to replay an upsetting memory in their minds. Then, he asked another group to do the same, except from a bystander’s position. Afterward, both groups were asked to work through their feelings from the viewpoint they took. While the first group stayed trapped emotionally, zeroing in on their hurt and anger, the second one reported seeing the situation more clearly and said they felt better emotionally.
Dr. Kross says that other scientific studies have shown that viewing a problem from removed outlook reigns in the fight-or-flight response, managing to calm not only the mind, but the body too. This shows just how powerful changing your outlook can really be.
But what about turning to someone for a real outside viewpoint? It depends on who you seek out for advice. “The trick is figuring out who to talk to and what kind of conversation to have,” Dr. Kross says. “If all you do in a conversation with someone is talk about the problem, that may feel good in the moment, but the problem still persists,” he explains. “The best conversations do two things: They allow you to express your emotions but then the person nudges you to broaden your perspective.” This is why it’s important to be discerning when it comes to who you share your thoughts with. Choose people who are good at helping you see a bigger picture and not just feeding into your negative thoughts, he says.
Other ways to create psychological distance
Besides changing your view and seeing an upsetting situation from a different angle, Dr. Kross says there are other ways to create psychological distance. One is talking yourself through something in the third person. For example, instead of thinking, “why did I snap at my partner today?” think: “why did your name blow up at her partner today?” It may sound goofy, but research shows that it’s an effective way to create emotional distance; using “I” talk is more strongly linked to depression than using the third person.
Another way to create distance is with time, explains Dr. Kross. Responding to an upsetting email 24 hours later is bound to be worded a lot differently than responding right away. “The passage of time refers to the idea of ‘time healing all wounds,’ and we know this to be really helpful,” Dr. Kross says. Want to make that beat extra powerful? Spend it outside—even going for a short walk has been scientifically shown to lead to clearer thinking, according to a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The underlying factor for all of these methods comes down to creating emotional distance between you and whatever it is that’s causing you to spiral. All the ways Dr. Kross highlights to do that are different tools to try. While it certainly can take a little experimenting in order to land on what method works best for you, with practice, taking an outsider’s perspective can get easier eventually. What’s more: With all that obsessive negativity put to rest, your mind is freed up for more positive thoughts. And all it really took was a mindset shift.
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