Character Lab//

How Your Self-talk Can Help You Cope With Stress

Talking to yourself like you’re someone else can help you shift your perspective and regulate your emotions.

In 2012, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl received one of the most frightening messages imaginable: a terrorist group was plotting to kill her.

Her name was Malala Yousafzai, and two years later, after recovering from a gunshot wound to the face, she would become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. But in that initial moment, when she had just heard about the threat against her life, she found herself focusing inward trying to make sense of her situation. 

When we’re stressed, turning inward is a common response—but it often backfires. Instead of making us feel better, it leads us to experience chatter.

Chatter is the cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that turn our capacity for introspection into a vulnerability rather than a strength—we worry, ruminate, and catastrophize rather than come up with clear solutions for how to improve our circumstances. And chatter is even more common now, given the turbulence of a once-in-a-century pandemic, a racial reckoning, and extreme political polarization.

So how can you manage your chatter? One useful tool is something called distanced self-talk—coaching yourself through a problem using your name, like you’re advising someone else. Malala turned to it instinctively: immediately after receiving the threat, she said to herself (silently, in her head), “If he comes, what would you do, Malala?” Then she answered the question she posed to herself, “Malala, just take a shoe and hit him….”

Research shows that it is easier to coach other people through their problems than it is to help yourself. Distanced self-talk capitalizes on this idea. Talking to yourself like you’re someone else—using your own name or “you” to work through your problems—helps you perform well under stress and regulate your emotions

The practice even works for children. When they’re struggling with a problem, ask them to imagine what they’d say to themselves if they were a superhero like Batman or PJ Masks (e.g., “What would Batman do?”). Doing so helps them control their emotions and persevere on difficult tasks, and it’s particularly useful for kids who struggle to manage their feelings. 

Don’t talk to yourself using “I,” “me,” or “my” when you’re struggling to control your emotions—it makes you more likely to wallow rather than work through your feelings. 

Do take a step back. When you give yourself the same advice you would a friend, you’re able to think about problems as a manageable challenge rather than an overwhelming threat—and that propels you forward. 

With gratitude, 
Ethan

Originally published by Character Lab.

    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

    You might also like...

    PM Images/Getty Images
    Wisdom//

    9 Powerful Life Lessons from 100 Year Olds

    by Chantal McCulligh
    Community//

    The Journey to Complete Wellness

    by Taylor Mercuri
    Thrive Global Podcasts//

    Gisele Bündchen Shares How Meditation Transformed Her Life

    by Stephanie Fairyington

    Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

    Thrive Global
    People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

    - MARCUS AURELIUS

    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.