To Move Forward Emotionally, Step Back
- From Medicalnewstoday:
To Move Forward Emotionally, Step Back
When you're upset or depressed, should you
analyze your feelings to figure out what's
wrong? Or should you just forget about it and move on?
New research suggests a solution to these
questions and to a related psychological
paradox: Pocessing emotions is supposed to
facilitate coping, but attempts to understand
painful feelings often backfire and perpetuate
or strengthen negative moods and emotions.
The solution is not denial or distraction.
According to University of Michigan psychologist
Ethan Kross, the best way to move ahead emotionally
is to analyze one's feelings from a psychologically
With University of California, Berkeley, colleague
Ozlem Ayduk, Kross has conducted a series of studies
that provide the first experimental evidence of the
benefits of analyzing depressive feelings from
a psychologically distanced perspective. The studies
were supported by funding from the National
Institutes of Health.
"We aren't very good at trying to analyze our
feelings to make ourselves feel better," said
Kross, a faculty associate at the U-M Institute
for Social Research (ISR) and an assistant
professor of psychology. "It's an invaluable
human ability to think about what we do, but
reviewing our mistakes over and over, re-experiencing
the same negative emotions we felt the first time
around, tends to keep us stuck in negativity. It can
be very helpful to take a sort of mental time-out,
to sit back and try to review the situation from a distance."
This approach is widely associated with eastern
philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism, and with
practices like Transcendental Meditation. But
according to Kross, anyone can do it with a little practice.
"Using a thermostat metaphor is helpful to many people.
When negative emotions become overwhelming, simply
dial the emotional temperature down a bit in order
to think about the problem rationally and clearly," he said.
Kross, who is teaching a class on self-control this
fall at U-M, has published two papers on the topic
this year. One provides experimental evidence that
self-distancing techniques improve cardiovascular
recovery from negative emotions. Another shows that
the technique helps protect against depression.
In the July 2008 issue of Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, Kross and Ayduk randomly
assigned 141 participants to one of three groups
that required them to focus (or not focus) on their
feelings using different strategies in a guided
imagery exercise that led them to recall an experience
that made them feel overwhelmed by sadness and depression.
In the immersed-analysis condition, participants
were told, "Go back to the time and place of the
experience, and relive the situation as if it were
happening to you all over again try to understand
the emotions that you felt as the experience unfolded
why did you have those feelings? What were the
underlying causes and reasons?"
In the distanced-analysis condition, they were told,
"Go back to the time and place of the experience take
a few steps back and move away from your experience
watch the experience unfold as if it were happening
all over again to the distant you try to understand
the emotions that the distant you felt as the
experience unfolded why did he (she) have those
feelings? What were the underlying causes and reasons?"
In the distraction condition, participants were
asked to think about a series of non-emotional
facts that were unrelated to their recalled
depression experience. Among the statements:
"Pencils are made with graphite" and "Scotland
is north of England."
After the experience, participants completed a
questionnaire asking how they felt at the moment,
and wrote a stream-of-thought essay about their
thoughts during the memory recall phase of the experiment.
Immediately after the session those who used the
distanced-analysis approach reported lower levels
of depression than those who used immersed-analysis,
but not distraction. Thus distraction and distanced-analysis
were found to be equally effective in the short-term.
Participants then returned to the lab either one day
or one week later. At that time, they were asked to
think about the same sad or depressing experience, and
their mood was reassessed.
Those who had used the distanced-analysis approach
continued to show lower levels of depression than those
who had used self-immersed analysis and distraction,
providing evidence to support the hypothesis that
distanced-analysis not only helps people cope with
intense feelings adaptively in the short-term, but
critically also helps people work-through negative
experiences over time.
In a related study, published earlier this year in
Psychological Science, Ayduk and Kross showed that
participants who adopted a self-distanced perspective
while analyzing feelings surrounding a time when they
were angry showed smaller increases in blood pressure
than those who used a self-immersed approach.
In future research, Kross plans to investigate whether
self-distancing is helpful in coping with other types
of emotions, including anxiety, and the best ways of
teaching people how to engage in self-distanced analysis
as they proceed with their lives, not just when they
are asked to recall negative experiences in a laboratory setting.
Article adapted by Medical News Today from original press release.
Established in 1948, the University of Michigan Institute for Social
Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest academic survey research
organizations, and a world leader in the development and application
of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-
cited studies in the nation, including the Reuters/University of
Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election
Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income
Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of
Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social
scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and
other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with
universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to
the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research
(ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data
archive. Visit the ISR web site at http://www.isr.umich.edu/ for more