If you’re feeling depressed or going through a difficult time emotionally, it can be tough to know the best way to work through it. Researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkley have found that distance may be the answer.
According to a series of studies conducted by psychologists Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk, analyzing depressed feelings from a psychologically distanced perspective provides a number of benefits.
According to Kross, humans aren’t very good at attempting to analyze their own feelings. Reviewing mistakes and negative emotions tends to cause us to experience the negative emotions over and over again. Taking a psychologically distanced perspective can decrease this phenomenon.
If this approach sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Many eastern philosophies such as Taoism, and Buddhism as well as spiritual practices such as Transcendental Meditation utilize this approach. In NLP, we’ve been teaching it systematically since the early 1970’s. According to Kross, it is something anyone can learn with a bit of practice.
In 2008, Kross and Ayduk conducted a study that randomly assigned 141 test subjects to three groups. Groups were given different strategies to deal with negative emotional experiences. In the immersed-analysis group participants were asked to relive the situation.
In the distance-analysis group participants were asked to take a few steps back and view the situation objectively, and in the distraction group participants were asked to think of facts unrelated to their experience.
The study found that in the short term, both distraction and distance-analysis proved effective for dealing with depressive emotions. However, over the long term, those who used the distanced-analysis approach reported continued lower levels of depression than those in any other method.
These effects appear to combat the negative physical effects of strong negative emotions as well; in a related study, Kross and Ayduk found that participants who used distance-analysis strategies to examine feelings of anger experienced smaller blood pressure increases than those who used a more self-centric approach.
The pair hopes to investigate if self-distancing approaches are as helpful in coping with other emotions such as anxiety as well.
The field of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) has been teaching NLP students to step back and view problems from a distance for decades. In NLP, we call the psychological distance dissociation (not to be confused with clinical dissociation, which modern psychiatry considers a symptom of mental illness).
Getting distance is easy once you identify an internal image that represents a problem. Think of one right now (a mild problem, please – such as a brief disagreement, having to wait in a long line, or feeling upset at your kids, etc…)
Now, notice the image in your mind the represents this situation and the feelings that go along with it. Next “push” the image off into the mental distance. Simply imagine this unpleasant image moving away from you until you can see yourself in it, as well as the larger context (other people, the setting, etc…)
Move it far enough away that you begin to feel like an observer, as if you could say to yourself, “Those people over there are having a hard time.” Don’t move it so far away that you can no longer see it, though.
1. What can I learn from this?
2. What are my options?
3. How do I avoid this in the future?
Interestingly, naturally optimistic people tend to distance themselves in this way from negative experience, while keep positive experiences close. Natural pessimists tend to do the opposite.
If you have a hard time creating the distance, then you may be more psychologically attached to the negativity than you thought. Psychological attachments lead to self-sabotage by clinging to negativity, pessimism, self-doubt, rejection, deprivation and more.
Learn more about self-sabotage by watching this free video.
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Last reviewed: 18 Feb 2014