I’m sitting in one of those mini-auditoriums, it’s a sunny fall day and light is streaming through the windows. I’m sitting next to my best friend prepared to pass notes and gossip during class. But then, the professor started talking and I was utterly captivated. He talked about studies looking at near death experiences, the mind-body connection, and how you can heal yourself emotionally with words.
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That was me in my sophomore year of college. It was one of the best classes I ever had. Did you ever have a class like that? Believe me, after all the years I’ve spent in school, they are rare — but they do exist — classes, books, and experiences can change our lives.
The professor in that class was Jamie Pennebaker. He made a discovery in his research that has greatly impacted how psychologists think about dealing with emotional trauma and stress. And, personally, being in his class gave me a tool I use as a parent, as a human, as a person who worries and stresses. And I’m sharing that with you today!
Writing expressively about emotions can work as an antidepressant. But, even more than that, expressing your emotions, rather than holding them in, has a positive impact on your physical health and your life.
In class, Dr. Pennebaker told us about several of his studies, but two I remember clearly. They were some of his earliest works.
The first was a study with college freshman. In their first semester at college, students were randomly assigned to write about their “deepest thoughts and feelings about coming to college” or to write about an object or event in an unemotional way. Both groups wrote on their topic for 20 minutes a day for three days.
Both groups had similar GPAs in the fall semester, however, in the Spring semester, the students who wrote about their emotions on coming to college had significantly higher GPAs and fewer visits to the health center.
The second study was with people who had lost their job. One group wrote about their deepest emotions related to losing their job and the other ground described an object or event. The group who wrote about their feelings were significantly more likely to get a new job in the next few months. In fact, the effect was so strong they terminated the study and offered the emotional writing treatment to the control group,
yet few people showed up because, as Dr. Pennebaker explained, it sounds almost too good to be true. Write about your emotions and improve your life — good health, better grades, a new job.
What is it about writing about your emotions that can improve your grades, protect your health, and make it more likely to be rehired after losing a job?
I think the process of writing itself helps your brain to organize complex feelings. When those feelings are not fully processed, they can take up enormous cognitive energy. Instead of spending that energy on positive things in your life, your working memory is busy with ruminating or intrusive thoughts and stress. All of which can lead to immune system suppression. Writing out those complex feelings help the mind and the body let go, organize, process and resolve those feelings.
As the tension eases, we can talk with family and friends, maybe even laugh about situations that once overwhelmed us. Then we can move on — be healthy and take the next step in life — study, find a new job, or even be a better parent. The power of our brain and our self-energy is free to focus on what we want in life, instead of what pained us or trapped us in the past.
Banish Stress with an Emotions Journal
Just do it — start writing!
Okay, easier said than done I know. But, keep in mind you only need to do this for 20 minutes a day for three days to address an unresolved emotional event in your life. It doesn’t have to be a big event. (If it is a majorly traumatic event, you may want to consult with a therapist before you get started and purchase Dr. Pennebaker’s guided journal).
- Get a kitchen timer.
- Get a plain spiral notebook or loose leaf paper (less pressure if it isn’t a pretty journal).
- Pick a time you can write for 15-20 minutes without stopping. Do this for 3 to 4 days.
- Write with a pen and paper as opposed to typing on the computer (because you process information differently when writing versus typing).
What to Write About
Anything that is worrying you, anything that preoccupies your thoughts or dreams, or maybe something you have avoided resolving from your past. Something that grips your heart and makes it hard to breathe sometimes.
All of us worry. We worry about the future, about the past and especially about our kids. It can be big or small. Like starting a new job or losing an old one. Worrying that your child may have allergies or worrying that your child has a serious illness. Getting married or getting divorced. Or the fact that in my house right now are two plumbers who are about to tear up my kitchen floor to fix a pipe under our house. Yep. I’m stressed!
How to Get Started
Set your timer for 15-20 minutes and write without thinking about grammar, style, who will read it or anything else. Just free write.
The only thing to think about as your write is this: Write about your emotions — your deepest thoughts, worries, and emotions. Explore those feelings. Tie them to past events and your feelings now. Think about how it has affected you and who you want to be.
Dr. Pennebaker has some good prompts on his website here: Writing and Health.
When you are done I suggest doing a ritual with those pages. Let go of them and what they represent by throwing the pieces into a lake or burning them.
I hope this life skill helps you– especially on those days when being a parent is especially hard and you can’t process all the feels!
For more tips, check out:
From The Univerity of Texas: Writing to Heal
From Introvert Dear: How to Heal Yourself from Emotional Upheaval Through Writing
Katie Hurley, LWSC Discusses strategies to help parents cope with emotions, including journaling, in her book The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World