Many comedians have been credited with the theory that “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Recently, however, a team of researchers has taken it upon themselves to test a related premise that tragedy—or emotionally difficult events—plus time can lead to a decrease in emotional distress through one’s ability to temporally distance oneself from an event.
What exactly is temporal distancing? The answer is related to the unique human ability to engage in “mental time travel”: when imagining our future, we can adopt a near-future perspective (e.g., imagining events as occurring in the coming days or weeks) or a longer term future perspective (e.g., imagining the coming years in more abstract terms).
Previous research indicates that people tend to envision the distant future using more abstract terminology and the nearer future using more concrete terms. That said, not much is known about how this ability to temporally place ourselves closer to or farther away from current life events can impact stress levels with respect to said events.
To address this question, a team of social psychologists studied the phenomenon of temporal distance and the regulation of emotional distress using a series of controlled laboratory experiments. Studies 1a, 1b, and 2 tested the basic premise that, by adopting a temporally distant perspective with regard to recent stressful events, an individual might be able to lessen their overall stress level.
Studies 3 through 6 sought to more fully understand possible mediating variables and individual differences that might impact the relationship between emotional distress and cognitive distancing with respect to time. Overall, findings across the seven studies supported the link between lower stress and temporal distancing.
This preliminary work suggests that temporal distancing may be a useful way for individuals to de-stress and become more cognitively insightful with respect to recent events. Taken as a whole, these findings demonstrate that cognitively distancing oneself from stressful events may be a valuable coping mechanism for individuals of all ages. Future research should ensue to determine if this technique could be more or less useful for older adults—who have more life experiences (and more experiences with emotionally stressful events) under their belts—compared to younger individuals.