CALMING 3RD PERSON SELF-TALK; POTENTIAL NEW MENTAL TOUGHNESS TOOL Can studies conducted by scientists at two separate universities help runners become mentally tough? Earned Runs is asking this question, although it was not a focus of either research study.
An article in a Michigan State University newsletter MSU Today described the studies that were reported together and published as one paper in Nature.com’s Scientific Reports. Study 1 was conducted by Associate Professor of Psychology Jason Moser and colleagues at the MSU Clinical Psychophysiology Lab. Study 2 was conducted by University of Michigan Psychology Professor Ethan Kross and colleagues at the UM Emotion and Self Control Lab.
The researchers sought to determine whether the “simple act of talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times” may help individuals control emotions without the degree of effort needed in other types of calming methods like mindfulness and other meditation exercises. They compared the effect of self-talk in the 3rd person, in which the person’s own name was used, with the more common habit of self-talk in the 1st person using the personal pronoun “I”, on emotion-related brain activity.
For example, a person might self-talk in the first person by thinking “Why am I upset?”, and in the 3rd person, “Why is Mary upset?”, paraphrasing the article.
Thirty-seven undergraduates were recruited for Study 1 for which they received partial course credit. According to the article “participants viewed neutral and disturbing images and reacted to the images in both the first and third person while their brain activity was monitored by an electroencephalograph” for event-related brain potentials (ERP).
In this first study, when “reacting to the disturbing photos” (from an official set of images of the International Affective Picture System) “such as a man holding a gun to their heads, participants emotional brain activity decreased very quickly (within 1 second) when they referred to themselves in the third person”.
Fifty-two subjects were recruited for Study 2 via flyers and ads on Facebook and Craig’s List. The 32 females and 20 male subjects received $50 in compensation. Roughly 71% were Caucasian, 15% Asian, 8% African American, 2% Native American, and 4% ‘other’. This second study was designed to more closely simulate a real-life situation. Participants were asked to recall an autobiographical situation that would create a negative emotional response while their brains were studied using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).
Earned Runs thinks that for runners, this might be like recalling an embarrassing or painful incident in a race that caused them to not finish.
Findings similar to those of the MSU study were obtained; brain activity was less “in a brain region that is commonly implicated in reflecting on painful emotional experiences, when using 3rd person self-talk.” Again, results indicated there was no greater brain effort required to use 3rd person versus 1st person self-talk.
How does this affect running and athletic performance in general? One of the tips to help with acquiring mental toughness provided by author Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter in the 2014 Competitor.com article” Keys to Running with Mental Toughness” is to use power words. Suggested phrases in her article begin with the first –person pronoun “I” and include “I stay positive…”, “I project…” and “I am…”.
Marathoner Sara Crouch, a three-time Olympic Trial qualifier, in her “Conquering the Mental Marathon” article for ACTIVE.com, advised spending 5 minutes talking to yourself in front of a mirror each night “repeating specific positive messages”. The given examples include, “I am fit, I am fast”.
Earned Runs (ER) ‘take’ on the topic: If positive self-talk in the first person doesn’t work for some runners, perhaps using the 3rd person approach will do the trick. If there’s an emotional element interfering with the process of becoming mentally prepared for a race or task, removing or diminishing it may lead to the desired results.
To back up the thought, ER searched for real-person experience on the internet and found that ultra-endurance athlete Christopher Bergland delved into this mental preparation area earlier in the year. A very recent item in his “The Athletes Way” blog also commented on the MSU-UM research and revealed that he had performed extensive work curating neuroscientific research on the topic. He indicates he published a May 2017 Psychology Today blog post “Gutsy Third Person Self-Talk Utilizes the Vagus Nerve” as part of a 9-part series (Vagus Nerve Survival Guide).
BOTTOM LINE: You don’t need to read all the research to determine if this technique helps improve your mental game. Simply try it. “It will work for Mary!”
BRIDGE TO PHYSICAL SELF
Running, walking, and fitness activities enable us to experience our physical selves in a world mostly accessed through use of fingers on a mobile device.
EARNED RUNS is edited and authored by me, runner and founder. I began participating in road races before 5Ks were common. I've been a dietitian, practiced and taught clinical pathology, and been involved with research that utilized pathology. I am fascinated with understanding the origins of disease as well as health.
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