Can writing about your emotions help you feel better? I tried this coping method several days ago, in preparation for talking about the method with employees of an Armidale social service agency. I followed the instructions I used in studies of the method with police officers and child protective service officers: Write for 15 minutes for four consecutive days about (1) strong emotions experienced, either recently or not, (2) what led to the emotions, and (3) what the emotions suggest that I do.
I will tell you about two emotions that I mentioned in my writing: joy and dismay/panic. The joy came from completing four radio interviews about a study a student and I are doing to evaluate an online training program for increasing life excitement. I enjoyed doing the interviews. That emotion suggested that I keep doing work that involves teaching and interacting with others, rather than being tempted by a purely research position. The other emotion, dismay/panic, occurred after I received emails from individuals who had tried to enter the study and had been kicked off the online site for no apparent reason. My first thought was: Oh no, all our work in setting up the study is going down the drain. The emotion suggested that I do something right away, so I contacted the student and asked her to check into the problem. I later calmed myself by thinking that the problem probably affects only some individuals with certain types of browsers. I also told myself not to panic – just what I have often told my children. I used my negative emotion to motivate rapid action, and I then gradually eliminated it. My writing helped confirm something that I preach to psychotherapy clients: emotions provide valuable information, and we can use them to motivate and guide our actions.
I told the social service agency employees about my experiences, and one person asked something like this: “What if I feel terrible because of the bad events that have happened to a close friend – what could that emotion suggest?” My answer: “Your feelings could suggest that you express empathy to your friend and offer assistance.”
Are your emotions sending you messages? Expressive writing can help a person understand the messages and take appropriate actions. Individuals who use this method tend to experience less distress than they would otherwise. That is what my two studies showed, along with over a hundred other published studies with various types of individuals.
Psychology professor James Pennebaker developed expressive writing decades ago. He initially asked individuals to write about their greatest traumas. More recently psychologists have broadened the scope to include positive emotions and to examine the implications of the emotions. These changes are part of positive psychology, a movement that focuses on helping individuals grow psychologically. I also study emotional intelligence, and I see expressive writing as a good way to increase certain aspects of emotional intelligence, including identifying one’s own emotions and taking actions to expand positive emotions and to use negative emotions to motivate change.
An option to writing about one’s emotions is to talk with another person about the emotions. Choose someone who cares about you and talk. See what happens.