Is it possible to worry less?
I have a confession: I am a big worrier. (My full back story here).
But I have found an incredible strategy for how to worry less.
It’s called psychological distance.
What is psychological distance?
Psychological distance is how we think about ourselves connected to other people, events or ideas.
It is a part of the Construal Level Theory. It affects the extent to which we think about things (events, people, ideas, etc.) as “high” or “low” level–high as abstract/big picture versus low as concrete/small picture.
Thinking abstractly and focusing on the bigger picture allows you to capture the overall gist of the situation or object at hand. It gives you an objective perspective to think clearly and assess the situation from all sides and perspectives until you can reach a final outcome. Psychological distance allows you to detach and step out of your current frame of mind to allow for new, fresh mindsets.
Whether you want to imagine yourself in the future or past, living in a different country or even as a different person, creating distance between yourself and your current state of mind can evoke 10 awesome psychological benefits:
How Psychological Distance Can Help You Worry Less
As a high neurotic (one of the most important of the 5 personality traits) I have a love hate relationship with worry. On the one hand, worrying keeps me up at night.
On the other, worry helps me prepare for the future.
So I wanted to know how I could worry less — or at least worry more productively.
Make Worries Easier To Handle
If the tasks at hand seem too daunting, too complex or are giving you anxiety, you can make them feel easier to handle by increasing your psychological distance. Thomas and Tsai discovered this by increasing both physical and psychological distance between participants in their study and the projects they were assigned.
Some individuals in the experiment activated an abstract mindset and found that it reduced the feeling of difficulty. Then, some individuals directly manipulated their physical distance from the task and found the same effect: reduced perceived difficulty.
- Bottom Line: If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with all the work you have on your plate, physically lean back in your seat away from the work and take yourself on a mental vacation away from your office for a couple minutes. When you return, you’ll realize all that’s on your plate isn’t as hard to take care of as you think.
Develop Greater Worry Insight
When everything in your life seems to be crashing down, instead of letting it get to you and have you feeling emotionally high-strung, distance yourself from the situation. Ayduk and Kross discovered that thinking of yourself as a “fly on the wall” when you’re surrounded by overwhelming negativity in your life can buffer you from feeling long-term effects from that negativity.
Distancing yourself psychologically from these types of emotionally-reactive situations allows you to reflect upon yourself, your surroundings and you’ll be able to understand the why of what’s going on. Being immersed in negative autobiographical experiences is linked to intrusive and ruminating thoughts and high emotional and cariovascular reactivity.
Bottom Line: When it all seems too overwhelming, take a deep breath and step back. View the situation from an outside, objective perspective–as if it’s not actually happening to you. How would you react if you were your friend trying to help you, instead of yourself in this moment? The answers you find once you reflect upon this will lead you in a whole new direction.
Be More Persuasive so You Worry Less
The power of persuading others actually depends on where they are in their decision mindset, a new experimental study found. Gergana Nenkov has determined that consumers who are still in a predecisional mindset (they have not yet finalized their decision) are the most likely to be persuaded by psychologically distant messages. Psychologically distant messages emphasize the future or a distant target or goal.
If a consumer has already made up their mind about a purchasing decision, they are most likely to be persuaded by messages that are more psychologically close, focusing on the present.
Bottom Line: If you’re trying to persuade a new couple to buy a larger table than they anticipated, try talking about its use and phrasing your messages in the future: “Think of all the dinner parties you two could throw for new friends you’ll make in the neighborhood” or “Thanksgiving is coming up and you’ll need all the table space you can get to provide enough room for all your family members and the food”
Control Your Emotions
Davis et al. suggests that psychological distance allows for emotional distance. In his study, he examined how negative and positive emotion-eliciting scenes were perceived by viewers when scenes were to be imagined moving closer or further away from the participants.
He found that the emotionally negative scenes elicited a less negative response and lower levels of emotional arousal when imagined that they were shrinking and moving away from the participants, and they were given a higher negative response and higher levels of emotional arousal when participants imagined them growing and coming closer.
Bottom Line: If you ever see a negative, upsetting or disturbing image, try your hardest to imagine it getting smaller and moving away from you. It will help lessen the bad emotional impact and reaction the sight has on your psyche.
Be True to Yourself
Ledgerwood et al. has found that practicing psychological distance can help us become less susceptible to outside social influences that try to change our core values and ideals. When individuals think about ideas in a more abstract manner, they evaluate it in a manner that reflects their true ideological values because they are able to think freely on the manner and interpret it in any way. This lessens incidental outside social influences.
When individuals think about an idea in a small, concrete mindset, it is more likely that they incidentally adapted their mentality from society or a stranger, which affects the way they think about their core values. This social influence leads them to conform with the societal norm and mentality which may not have lined up with their true, original values.
Bottom Line: Allow yourself to think outside the box and to interpret ideas in a large-scale, abstract manner. Let your thoughts and interpretations flow freely–this way, your final ideas on the matter at hand line up with the core truths and values that are so important to you.
Thinking abstractly actually makes people be more polite to others, a new study finds. Stephan et al. states that politeness reflects and regulates social distance (according to the politeness theory). In fact, many studies support this by revealing that people’s increased politeness was associated with situations in which others were temporally and spatially distant.
Bottom Line: People are more polite to strangers and others that they don’t know very well or interact with often.
Get Those Creative Juices Flowing
Whenever you’re feeling stuck at a creative impasse, Jia et al. has found that psychological distance is the solution to that common problem. In the experiment, participants were assigned difficult creative tasks originating from varying distances away from them, some close and some far. When the creative task originated from a far away distance, the individuals provided more creative insights, responses, and solutions to the problem at hand.
In fact, if participants even just thought of the task as distant from them, they were able to solve twice as many problems, compared to those who were close to, or thought of as close to, the task.
Bottom Line: If you are stuck at a creative roadblock, create some distance between yourself and the project both mentally imagining that the project is far from you, and physically creating that distance.
Fujita et al. has determined that self-control involves behaving and making decisions in a manner consistent with high-level construals, or abstract thinking. A series of experiements were conducted that tested participants’ self-control, psychological processes and thought processes.
Results indicated that people who were able to think abstractly and create psychological distances for themselves in the given situations exhibited “decreased preferences for immediate over delayed outcomes, greater physical endurance, stronger intentions to exert self-control, and less positive evaluations of temptations that undermine self-control”
Bottom Line: If you can focus on the big picture and think abstractly about the outcome or the goal at hand, you are better able to demonstrate self-control to make the goal come to fruition, no matter what may try to get in your way.
See the Bigger Picture
Being able to see the bigger picture can be a hard skill to learn, but practicing abstract thinking and psychological distance can make it so much easier to apply to everyday life. Kross and Grossmann have found that psychological distance enhances wise reasoning and the ability to think big.
In order to do this, participants were cued to reason and rationalize issues that were deeply personal and meaningful to them. When they were able to think about these issues from a distanced and bigger picture point of view, their attitudes, behaviors and abilities to use wise reasoning were significantly enhanced.
Bottom Line: Being able to create distance between yourself and deep, personal issues can allow you to see the bigger picture of what it all means and how it affects others and the world around you. Understanding that some things may be out of your control can bring you peace of mind, deeper understanding, and a fresh outlook on life.
Caution – The Illusion of Explanatory Depth
There could be a slight danger to abstract thinking called the “illusion of explanatory depth“. A simple definition of this concept is that people believe they understand a concept more deeply than they actually do.
Bottom Line: This just goes to show that abstract thinking should not be used for every situation or problem in your life, because you may not truly understand something as well as you think you do.
So, what does psychological distance mean to you? It means less worry.
This amazing little brain trick can help you increase your impact so you don’t have to worry as much.
Creating mental, and sometimes even physical, distance between yourself and your problems is such a simple life hack that can make those trivial problems and seemingly overwhelming workloads become much smaller than they originally seem.
It’s time to start thinking outside the box.