Self-distancing helps you reflect on stressful past and future events

As humans, we don't just think about what is happening in our lives here and now. We also have the ability to think about the past and the future. How we think about the events in our life has a lot like how we feel. Research has shown that self-distancing can help reflect on past negative events in our lives. Recent research looked at the effect of self-distancing when thinking about a feared future. 

How self-distancing helps to think about past negative events 

Self-distancing means that we look at the situation from an outsider perspective, a third person perspective. As if we were a fly on the wall. Self-distancing thinking about past negative events leads to fewer negative emotions, less strong physical reaction and less worrying than thinking from the ego perspective (see eg Ayduk & Kross, 2008; 2010). 

Does self-distancing help you think about a feared future? 

White et al. (2019) investigated whether these positive effects of self-distancing also occur when thinking about a feared future, and if so, through which mechanisms this happens. To find out, they conducted three studies (total N = 2344). 

In studies 1 and 2, spontaneous self-distancing predicted less anxious emotional reactivity in adults and adolescents. This effect was mediated by differences in how vividly participants imagined a future anxiety-provoking event. The more self-distanced the subjects reflected on their situation, the less vividly they envisioned the anxiety-provoking situation and the less emotional they responded. 

Less vivid images, less fear 

Study 3 provided causal evidence in a sample of adults: Adopting a self-distanced (versus self-immersed) perspective when thinking about a future stressor led to lower levels of anxiety and reduced vividness of the images. 

Consistent with Studies 1 and 2, reductions in image vividness provided the emotion-regulating benefits of self-distancing. A meta-analysis of all three studies further confirmed these findings in samples.