The University of Michigan released the following announcement:
Step Back To Move Forward Emotionally, Study Suggests
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 studies were
supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health.
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.
“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
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
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.