Rather than immersing oneself in the bad news and sinking into obsessive analysis, "self-distancing essentially gives you a psychological time-out," says Ethan Kross, PhD, an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Michigan, who has co-authored studies on the subject. "It involves taking a mental step back from a painful episode. You become a fly on the wall, watching yourself in the experience and reflecting on it from a distance."
In one experiment, Kross and his colleagues asked students to think of a difficult episode from their past. Those in one group were told to relive the event as if it were happening again; the others were instructed to visualize moving away from the situation to a vantage point where they could watch themselves in the unfolding drama as if it were a video. The self-distancing group not only felt less distressed but registered notably lower blood pressure. "This distancing," Kross says, "facilitates the ability to work through the event, leading people to have insights that buffer them against future negative reactions. If you ask them to recall the same experience a week later, they don't become as upset as people who don't distance. They also ruminate less."
Kross acknowledges that his research is informed by Eastern practices aimed at detaching yourself from your thoughts and feelings. Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, says that meditation techniques can be useful. "Always remember to breathe," she advises. "And look for what you're adding to a difficult feeling. Is it humiliation? Anger? Are you projecting about how things will be in the future? Try to let go of all that and come back to what's actually going on." Ten to 15 minutes of meditation a day can help build emotional immunity.
- Mentally take a step back so you can visualize yourself in the experience—it's now happening to the person (fill in your name) over there.
- Ask why this person is reacting the way she is. (Don't focus on what happened, or you'll become overwhelmed with negative feelings.)
- As you watch the person go through the event, try to make sense of why she is having these feelings.
- Whenever bad feelings recur, try distancing again.