Psychological paradox: Emotionally step back to move forward

Depressed man (Photo by Thinkstock)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: Processing 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 psychologist Ethan Kross, the best way to move ahead emotionally is to analyze one’s feelings from a psychologically distanced perspective.

Hear researcher Ethan Kross discuss the best approaches to processing emotional pain

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,” says Kross, a faculty associate at the 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 widely is associated with eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism, and with practices like Transcendental Meditation. But anyone can do it with a little practice, Kross says.

“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 says.

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 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.

Results of the research appear in the July 2008 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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