When we encounter stressful situations in life, sometimes we’re able to turn them into something more than stressful situations. They can become stressful situations that add something to our life and that have meaning.
How to actually do this is the challenge, of course. Generally, it requires finding a new perspective on the stressful situation we’re confronting.
A technique that can help inspire this change in perspective is distancing yourself from the stressful situation, either in time or in space. But you don’t have to physically distance yourself from the situation to gain this insight – imagining your perspective on it from a distance can be enough to find new meaning.
Some details of how this works come from a recent study by researchers in China and Germany. Participants in the study were asked to “think of a recent event that is unresolved and still highly upsetting to you.”
Next, the participants were asked to imagine the event in a particular way. For this part of the task they were put into one of three groups. The first group was given the following instructions:
Imagine the situation unfold through your own eyes, as if it were happening to you right now. Try to understand why it happened, or the meaning in the occurrence of this event.
The second group was asked to use the technique of distancing themselves in time as they imagined the situation:
Take a few steps back and move away from the situation to ten years later, where you can watch the event unfold from a distance and see yourself in the event. As you do this, focus on who the distant you has now become. Watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you. Think about why this happened and what it means to you.
Finally, the third group was instructed to use the technique of distancing themselves in space:
Imagine yourself in a location that is far away from where the negative event occurred (e.g., in another city). Think about being in that location, and watch the event unfold from a distance.
After completing this exercise, the participants in the second two groups reported having an increased sense of meaning in life. Presumably, taking a situation they currently found stressful and reflecting on it through the eyes of their selves in the future or at a spatial distance helped them find meaning in the situation.
The general takeaway is that looking for meaning can help us cope with the stressful situations we inevitably encounter in life. As far as how to do that, using our imagination to reconsider things from a distance in time or space can help us find new, more meaningful angles on events in our lives.