Confused At A Crossroads? Try This Neuroscience-Based Tip To Calm Emotions & Gain Clarity

August 9, 2023

Are you good at making decisions? Is “Equanimity” your middle name? I pride myself on being a good decision-maker with very little regrets. While I’m highly emotional, my baseline mental state is more or less balanced. But recently, I found myself grieving the loss of a loved one while also contemplating big decisions: selling or keeping my condo, what to do with my furniture, etc. I felt pressured while emotionally exhausted, and it was just a big mess.

Maybe you’re also facing emotion-laden choices. Should you break up with your partner? Look for a new job? Move to a new country? Invest in something? Have a difficult conversation with a friend or a colleague? Sometimes, even smaller decisions can feel overwhelming. As I write this, I’m intensely stressed over the choice to sell or keep my wedding dresses. (Free up some storage and earn a little money or keep them for sentimental value?) That’s just one among 50 questions I’m asking myself right now.

a white woman resting her face in her left palm while gazing down slightly in a worried expression.

Talk about yourself as if you were someone else

When you’re feeling anxious and need calm and clarity, there is a simple, science-backed strategy to gain a more objective perspective. According to two recent complementary studies by the University of Michigan and Michigan State University researchers, talking to yourself in the third person provides the distance that helps you control emotions. In the U of M study, study participants recollected painful experiences from their past using the first person and the third person. When they were using third person, their brain showed less activity in regions that usually process painful recollections. The MSU study similarly found that subjects seeing a disturbing image and describing it in third person were far less impacted than those describing it in first person.

The University of Michigan professor Ethan Kross said, “What’s really exciting here is that the brain data from these two complimentary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.”

I’m imagining myself reframing my narrative and it’s already making me feel that my situation, while objectively difficult, is also objectively not “more than any one person can take” as I frequently think inside my head. Because truthfully, many people have gone through this and survived.

More tips to clear your head

If you are still having emotional upheaval, I get it—right there with you! There are more strategies that can help you make decisions calmly.

  1. HALT: Are you “Hungry”? “Angry”? “Lonely”? Or “Tired”? These are the depleted states in which it is exponentially easier to make an uninformed decision. We’ve all gone to the grocery store hungry and bought way too much food, or gotten angry and burned a bridge. And who among us hasn’t late-night texted a toxic love interest while really, really lonely? Be sure to meet your baseline needs before you make a hasty move.
  2. Eliminate unnecessary stressors: A big part of this is reducing the amount of choices you have to make. If you eat the same breakfast every day, or workout every day without fail, there is less you have to think about. I also find that reducing stressors like household mess is great for clearing and calming one’s overtaxed nervous system. Before you make a decision to sell a house for example, set aside some time to get organized in your physical space as well as mental/ emotional space. For me, that means re-organizing my closet and donating unwanted clothes, answering emails that need to be answered, and just generally taking care of clutter.

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Photo: Michael Heise via Unsplash


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