This is the second in the series Recruiting the Vagus Nerve: the best friend you didn’t know you had.
Self-distancing is a powerful intervention – some people call them hacks or manoeuvres – to recruit the Vagus Nerve, that wonderful friendly nerve that controls the relaxation response of our Autonomic Nervous System. This is the tend and befriend ground or circuit of safety and connection. When we activate the vagal pathways of the Parasympathetic System, we reduce stress, anxiety and anger, as well as reducing lethargy, low motivation, and inflammation. We improve immune response, breathing, cardiac health, digestion, and lots more. The activity of the Vagus Nerve is measured as vagal tone, so the better we get at recruiting the Vagus Nerve the more we improve what our ‘vagal tone’. You can think of it as a singer toning the voice.
These interventions that target the Vagus Nerve also do something quite remarkable and unexpected – they reduce egocentric bias, that is, the tendency to over-emphasize our own personal view and experience at the expense of a broader perspective. Vagus Nerve activity reduces our tendency to over-analyze and ruminate on our emotions and reactions, hopes and fears. The Vagus Nerve helps us to be less self-conscious, which is always a liberating trend.
A number of scientific research studies have shown that techniques that involve a practice called self-distancing actually reduce this egocentric bias and improve vagal tone – our ability to self-regulate through recruiting the Vagus Nerve.
What is ‘self-distancing’? Self-distancing is developing an observer part of our consciousness. It’s getting out of our story – of predictions or fantasies about the future, if I do this then this might happen. Equally, it releases us from raking over the past which often keeps us trapped in negative thought-loops or obsessive nostalgia. Self-distancing is the opposite of self-immersion. Self-immersion always keeps us from experiencing the present moment because it involves thinking about the self instead of being the self.
According to research, when people adopt a self-distanced perspective while discussing a past difficult event or imagining a difficult future event, they make better sense of their reactions, experience less emotional distress, and display fewer physiological signs of stress, which is reflected in healthier cardiovascular activity. They also experience reduced reactivity when remembering the same problematic event weeks or months later, and they are less vulnerable to recurring thoughts (or rumination).
You can do this consciously, but this tendency can also begin to emerge as a side-effect of mindfulness and yoga techniques which train us to practice observing the body.
TECHNIQUES FOR SELF DISTANCING:
In one study, participants were put into one of three groups. One group performed a traditional “expressive writing” task, with instructions to wear their heart on their sleeve and write freely about their “strongest and deepest emotions.” Another group was told to engage in “narrative expressive writing”, in which they created a “coherent and organized narrative” of their marital separation with a storyline arc with a beginning, middle, and end. The third group given an emotionally neutral writing task. Participants assigned to the “narrative expressive writing” group showed the greatest reduction in cardiovascular markers for stress as well as an increase in heart rate variability (HRV). They found that people who had the best results used the question what instead of why did because why questions encourage a lot of fantasizing.
- TAKE THE PERSPECTIVE OF AN OBSERVER: It’s hard to stop this mental chatter altogether, so a technique that people have found useful is to imagine a stressful future or past event like a fly on the wall. This is a step towards developing what is called ‘witness consciousness’ in yogic traditions or ‘observer consciousness’. A number of studies have shown that people feel less anxious when they imagine a future stressful event – like public speaking or an upcoming interview – as an outside observer.
- USE THE THIRD PERSON WHEN SELF-REFERENCING: Saying your name out loud, or even in your head, when self-referencing can have the effect of encouraging a less emotional response to events. If you’re have a tough day getting motivated, you can talk yourself through the steps you need to take – like getting in the shower, making breakfast, and so on as if you are your own coach. You can even give yourself encouragement, like “Don’t worry, you can do this.” Positive self-talk in the third person can help to transform negative thoughtform loops by replacing self-criticism with self-care. In other words, we talk to ourselves the way we would talk to a friend.
- NARRATIVE EXPRESSIVE JOURNALING Research shows that just 20 minutes of “narrative expressive writing” over a three day period can trigger a physiological chain reaction that was found to improve Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals that indicates cardiovascular health and is how vagal tone is measured.
Self-distancing helps us to maintain that BIG PICTURE – viewing our prospects from a third-person perspective helps us to notice things that we might easily miss when we’re all tangled up with it. We miss the wood for the trees, as it were. Self-distancing helps us to be MORE OBJECTIVE which in turn, helps us to take things less personally. And perhaps the greatest gift of self-distancing is the effect of SELF-FRIENDING. Developing this observer self brings in a kinder and less judgmental point of view. It is often easier to have a calm and wise perspective on a friend’s problems but less easy to have that same perspective towards our own.
With the gentle art of self-distancing, we can finally be that friend to ourselves that we try to be for others.
Featured photo by: Angela Hogg
1. The art of self-distancing https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201901/the-art-self-distancing
2. Regarding stressful events as an observer https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0019205
3. Third person self-referencing. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/self-talk-using-third-person-pronouns-hacks-your-vagus-nerve
4. Narrative expressive journaling as a tool for self-distancing https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/narrative-expressive-journaling-could-help-your-vagus-nerve