Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University and an Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellow
Some people are looking to a Donald Trump presidency with fear. They’re following every Twitter post and cabinet pick, and their anxiety continues to increase. A technique that might help those of us with concerns is called psychological self-distancing, putting some space emotionally between us and what is causing us stress.
When confronted with a negative event, people sometimes churn the associated unhelpful thoughts around and around in their minds. Others are drawn like a moth to light when a negative event or some drama occurs, and they thrive off the energy. The downside is that people can get too physically and emotionally aroused, which can not only take a toll on their body but can drain their support system as well. This kind of self-immersion also doesn’t usually give us the most realistic picture of the world around us.
Getting some psychological distance allows us to see the perceptions of threats more clearly and experience worry in more digestible chunks. We can reduce our negative emotional and physiological reactions as well as increase our general well-being. Adaptive reflection also helps us assess future stressors in less-threatening terms.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have skin in the game or that we bury our heads in the sand. Rather psychological self-distancing is a way to healthily pause, gain some perspective, reboot and re-engage.
Research has found that distancing can be effective for all age groups. Children can be successfully taught to do engage in distancing to reduce their distress and see things in a more positive or less catastrophic light. There’ve even been studies showing that people can be taught how to do this online via a brief training or through expressive writing.
How can you tap into such a process?
Choose your words carefully.
In order to increase our efficacy at this new skill, our choice of words matters. We need to decrease our use of negative emotions words (e.g., sad, upset, anger, fear, hatred, disgust) that unhelpfully feed the flame as well as deterministic language (e.g., this, that, ought, should). Instead, we should increase our use of causation words (e.g., because, why). This helps us to provide a richer, fuller context on all contributing factors to any situation and let’s us avoid seeing things in black and white.
View yourself from a third-person perspective.
See yourself as a “fly on the wall” and focus less on recounting the emotionally arousing features of the event but more on reporting them in a matter-of-fact way. The language you use when referring to yourself makes a difference. Using non-first-person pronouns and your own name as opposed to first-person pronouns enhances your ability to take that step back. When we refer to ourselves by name or as he/she, him/her, himself/herself or even you/yours/yourself, we can afford ourselves more breathing room.
Find what works for you.
Research shows different people react to news and events in different ways, depending on their standard style of coping, state and severity of mind and cultural characteristics, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. For example, people who habitually detach themselves from their experiences may benefit from focusing on these thoughts whereas people who wade out into these reflective waters a little too much or go a little too deep may benefit more from some psychological distance.
For many of us, self-distancing can be hard to do in the heat of the moment. But if we can learn to engage in this technique even in those times, it can reduce our aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior. If you’re one of those people who is experiencing a lot of anxiety in the age of Trump, being able to engage in some self-distance, even making small shifts, can have payoffs.