Writing for Mental Health

Joshua Smyth and his colleagues at the State University of New York – Stony Brook studied the effect of writing about personal traumas on physical and psychological health. In Smyth’s general procedure, people were asked to choose a personal trauma and write about it for a few minutes a day for several days. The most frequent topics were the breakup of a relationship, death of a loved one, or being in an accident. A control group of people was asked simply to write about their plans for the next day.

After the writing period, all participants were given physical and psychological tests. The physical tests assessed how well their immune system was functioning; the psychological tests evaluated how effectively they felt they were handling stress in their lives. On both measures, the group that wrote about personal issues scored better than the group that merely wrote about plans for the next day. Along the same lines, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas described a study done with unemployed engineers. Half were randomly chosen to write about how being laid off from their jobs made them feel; the other half did not. Over a period of weeks, measures of psychological well-being showed those who wrote about their feelings were happier, healthier, and more energetic in their job search.

What’s going on here? Does writing provide some sort of energy release – getting rid of negative thoughts and feelings – that is responsible for the benefits? The researchers didn’t think so. They concluded that writing helps people restructure their thinking about current stressful issues. That is, as they write about stressors, they are actually dealing with them at some intellectual and cognitive level; they are seeing things in a new perspective while thinking things through. In other words, the writing exercise helped the writers focus on their problems, not on their emotions and feeling sorry for themselves.

Many entries in this blog describe the dangers of being overly concerned with your emotions. Do you believe your emotions are the cause of your problems? Do you see those emotions as the reason you can’t fall in love, work with colleagues, or have a satisfying social life?  If so, you need to stop focusing on your emotions and focus instead on the fact that you are troubled because of actions you take: denial, social withdrawal, avoidance of responsibility, inappropriately confronting others, hanging on in an unsatisfying relationship like some masochist – these are actions that sabotage effective coping. You need to accept the reality that you are anxious, frustrated, jealous, ashamed, or angry because of actions you choose to perform to service these emotions. “I must become less anxious” is not a good coping strategy because you must deny a part of yourself; “I will learn to act in different ways when I am anxious” is a good strategy because you see that you have a problem to solve.

When you believe your emotions cause your difficulties, you will try to manage, control, and avoid those emotions. This approach won’t work because emotions are a normal part of you. If you try to suppress or deny them, you become obsessed with them, and they actually become more frequent and troublesome. You will become frustrated and self-critical, putting yourself down, complaining that “I can’t even control my emotions.” Such self-criticism can lead to feelings of helplessness, and depression is not far behind.

When psychologically troubled, you may not profit from writing about it. Always remember, when it comes to coping plans and strategies, once size does not fit all. Still, the studies on writing and mental well-being show the benefits of focusing on what you can do about your emotions, rather than preoccupying yourself with those emotions. Asking, “Why am I such an anxious person? How can I get rid of this anxiety?” takes you into a world of denial, avoidance, and instability. Writing about a problem and ways to solve that problem just might inspire you to recognize, “I’m an anxious person in these types of situations, so I need to prepare appropriate behaviors so the anxiety doesn’t overwhelm me.” Such a strategy will take you into a world of effective coping with confidence and personal empowerment.

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