Whenever you feel down, one piece of advice well-meaning friends and family give you is that you’ll feel better if you write those feelings down.
This is true.
When people write about an upsetting experience they immediately develop an optimistic view of their situation which helps to improve their mood.
Studies have shown that writing about stressful experiences can lead to improvements in physical and emotional health. This activity is called expressive writing. American Social Psychologist, James W. Pennbaker describes expressive writing as “a self reflective learning activity that allows for writing, review and cognitive processing of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings.”
Writing about your feelings and thoughts when you feel distressed gives you the opportunity to get a clear sense of your difficulty. It helps you take control of your emotions by bringing you to organize such emotions, find meaning in them, and reevaluate them. According to a journal published by the American Psychology Association, recreating a stressful experience through writing gives you the ability to regulate the emotions associated with it.
Apart from helping you cope with a painful experience, expressive writing protects you against developing intrusive thoughts about such experience.
Expressive writing gives you the freedom to heal from emotional pain. And as with every activity that leads to freedom, there are no rules to expressive writing. But you should follow these four simple tips to ensure you make the most of this meaningful activity
- Take in the negative feelings
Have you noticed that the moment you decide you should stop thinking about a particular thing is the moment you start obsessing over it? The thoughts you desperately want to get rid of are the ones that keep replaying in your head.
Unfortunately, the best way to get these intrusive thoughts out of your head is to welcome them in.
Doesn’t make sense? Numerous studies say it does.
Welcoming negative emotions is the first step to practicing expressive writing. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology embracing your emotions can help ease your negative feelings.
You have to come to terms with the fact that the idea is not to stop thinking about the painful experience. It is to fully process it. You mustn’t try to suppress the effect of this upsetting experience if you want to heal from it. Remember, you can’t heal what you don’t reveal.
Writing shines the light on your pain and you have to prepare your mind to accept this process. Pennbaker in his book Opening up by Writing it down says that the mere acknowledgement that the event happened produces an order that helps you make sense of the situation.
If you need time to reflect on your emotions before you start writing, take it. As long as it helps you get lost in the activity.
- Be yourself.
This is the best time to take the advice “be yourself”. To practice expressive writing you must fully bare yourself. This makes the experience freeing, giving you the beautiful release you need.
Pennbaker in his book Opening up by Writing it down, says that the reason writing about an upsetting experience is a good coping strategy is because it gives you the opportunity to be completely honest with yourself. It is safe and you don’t have to worry about anyone else judging you for the way you feel. You can also trust yourself not to use whatever you disclose in writing against you as others may when you open up to them.
This is why it’s easy to talk to a stranger about your feelings. Now you don’t have to talk to a stranger when you can just write it out.
But if you don’t allow yourself to be truthful about your feelings you’ll miss out on the benefits of the practice.
- Be present.
The reason writing is important in processing our emotions is because it is a form of self expression. To express yourself you have to be present in the activity. When you’re present you’re able to thoroughly organize your thoughts and evaluate them.
There are practical ways to ensure you’re present in this activity. Make sure you’re in a place you won’t be disturbed. Remove all forms of distractions. Don’t write on any electronic device if you’re not convinced you won’t get distracted by it. Just using a pen and paper in a quiet place should be enough for you.
As you’re present, you’ll be able to write down your thoughts and feelings as they are and as they come.
- Write whatever, whenever, however. Just write.
You’re in control of the activity, act like it.
You can write whatever comes to your head without following the rules of grammar.
According to an article published by the Journal of Research in Personality, writing about the negative and positive emotions associated with a painful experience both contribute to help you better regulate your emotions. This means you’re not restricted to writing only about the negative feelings you have about a situation to feel better about it. Pennbaker, in his book, Opening up by Writing down, states that you can write about an imaginary trauma and issues from the past.
The whole idea is that you’re translating your emotions into words to make them manageable.
Write whenever you feel the need to. Still, Pennbaker warns that you shouldn’t use writing as a substitute for action or meaningful conversations with a loved one.
With expressive writing what matters the most is that you’re strengthening your relationship with your mind and thought process through writing.
Expressive writing lets you see yourself in relation to your experience with a fresh pair of eyes. Sometimes, this is all you need to make you feel better about a messy experience. Take charge of your pain and let it all out through writing.