The trick is to pretend that you have stepped back and are seeing the situation from a distance, as though you are an observer instead of a participant. From this more distant spot you can look at your feelings.
“Self-distancing” is the term researchers at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan gave to the technique. The findings of two related experiments were published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“The secret is to not get immersed in your own anger and, instead, have a more detached view,” says Dominik Mischkowski, an Ohio State graduate student and lead author of the research. “You have to see yourself in this stressful situation as a fly on the wall would see it.” Mischkowski says the self-distancing approach helped people regulate their angry feelings and also reduced their aggressive thoughts.
Other studies have shown that self-distancing can minimize how angry and aggressive people feel when aggravated, but this research shows that the technique can be learned quickly and can work in the heat of the moment, when people are most likely to act aggressively.
Student participants were provoked to anger in a series of situations, then were assigned to a control group, to visualize the situation again, or to imagine the scene from a distance. Their levels of aggression were then measured when given the opportunity to retaliate to those who provoked them.
“If you focus too much on how you’re feeling, it usually backfires. It keeps the aggressive thoughts and feelings active in your mind, which makes it more likely that you’ll act aggressively,” says Brad J. Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State and one of the study’s co-authors.
Another technique sometimes suggested is to use distraction when angered. Mischkowski says that although this may work in the moment, the anger will return when the person is no longer distracted. “But self-distancing really works, even right after a provocation. It is a powerful intervention tool that anyone can use when they’re angry.”
This article was originally published in Pathways Physician & Health Professional Bulletin - Issue 25. To download this issue in PDF format, or past issues, visit our newsletter archives online at www.pathwayshealth.org/publications.