Massage therapists are only human–but as health-service professionals, do well to keep anger under wraps. (Even when client “Ms. Smith” cancels her appointment with 24 hours’ notice for the third time this month.)

The good news is, researchers at Ohio State University have found that a technique called self-distancing can help people calm aggressive reactions.

The study reveals a simple strategy that people can use to minimize how angry and aggressive they get when they are provoked by others.

“When someone makes you angry, try to pretend you’re viewing the scene at a distance; in other words, you are an observer rather than a participant in this stressful situation,” states an Ohio State University press release. “Then, from that distanced perspective, try to understand your feelings.”

In one study, college students who believed a lab partner was berating them for not following directions responded less aggressively and showed less anger when they were told to take analyze their feelings from a self-distanced perspective, according to the press release.

“The secret is to not get immersed in your own anger and, instead, have a more detached view,” said Dominik Mischkowski, lead author of the research and a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State University.

“You have to see yourself in this stressful situation as a fly on the wall would see it.”

While other studies have examined the value of self-distancing for calming angry feelings, this is the first to show that it can work in the heat of the moment, when people are most likely to act aggressively, Mischkowski said.

The worst thing to do in an anger-inducing situation is what people normally do: try to focus on their hurt and angry feelings to understand them, said Brad Bushman, a co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.

“If you focus too much on how you’re feeling, it usually backfires,” Bushman said.

“It keeps the aggressive thoughts and feelings active in your mind, which makes it more likely that you’ll act aggressively.”

Mischkowski and Bushman conducted the study with Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan. Their findings appear online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.

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