This Too Shall Pass: Temporal Distance and the Regulation of Emotional Distress
Does the time perspective people adopt when reflecting on stressful events influence how they respond emotionally to these events? If so, through what cognitive pathway(s) does it have this effect? Part 1 of my dissertation examined these questions in a series of seven studies. Studies 1a, 1b, and 2 tested the hypothesis that adopting a distant-future perspective on recent stressors (relative to a near-future or control perspective) reduces emotional distress, examining four potential mediators of this effect. Study 3 built upon the prior studies by investigating whether their findings apply to a new domain and affect longer-term outcomes. Studies 4-6 centered on a key cognitive mechanism that helped to account for the distress-reducing properties of temporal distancing across our first three studies—impermanence focus. Studies 4 and 5 examined whether individual differences in impermanence focus predicted emotional reactions to negative events in a manner similar to adopting a distant-future perspective. Study 6 manipulated impermanence focus to test whether it affected emotional reactions to stressors in a manner parallel to adopting a distant-future perspective.
Part 2 of my dissertation examined boundary conditions of the buffering effects of temporal distancing—exploring conditions under which temporal distancing might amplify rather than reduce emotional distress. However, very few moderators of the link between temporal distancing and reduced distress were found, and those that were identified were weak. Taken together, these studies demonstrate that temporal distancing plays an important role in emotional coping with negative events, and that it does so by directing individuals’ attention to the impermanent aspects of these events. Moreover, temporal distancing appears to be a strategy that effectively reduces the distress associated with a wide variety of stressors, for a broad range of individuals.