Grief, heartache, loss, trauma.
Having to deal with emotional pain is one of the inescapable ups and downs of being human.
Most of us are familiar with the psychological impact of emotional pain, like stress, worry, and depression. But what about the physical toll?
Emotional pain doesn’t effect our physical health right?
Science has shown that the emotional pain bought on by traumatic and highly stressful experiences is associated with poorer physical health.
The scientific community had known for years that any kind of trauma was highly stressful. After an emotional upheaval, people were likely to become depressed, get sick, gain or lose weight, and even die from heart disease and cancer at higher rates.
In fact, a landmark study (the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) of over 12,000 people established that trauma in childhood was a strong predictor of serious illness in adulthood
So with both our mental and physical health at risk, what works to deal with emotional pain?
What about the common advice of talking about it?
It’s just talk. How helpful could talk possibly be?
Research shows that not talking about a traumatic experience leads to poorer physical health.
Having a traumatic experience was certainly bad for people in many ways, but people who had a trauma and kept that traumatic experience secret were much worse off.
Not talking to others about a trauma, we learned, placed people at even higher risk for major and minor illness compared to people who did talk about their traumas
So how bad for your health is not talking to someone, anyone, about the emotional pain of a traumatic experience?
Scientific studies show that those that do not talk about their traumas to others end up seeing a doctor 40% more often than those that do.
the people who had had any kind of major trauma before age of seventeen went to physicians for illness at twice the rate of people who had not had a trauma….among those who had traumas, those who kept their traumas secret went to physicians almost forty percent more often than those who openly talked about their traumas.
Sure you say, talk to someone, you’ll do better. That’s great. But what if you just aren’t ready to talk?
Or what if you can’t talk to someone because you’re working somewhere remote, or there’s no one you trust enough yet to talk to?
Can you get some of the benefits of talking about your emotional pain, without talking?
Grab a pen.
You read that right.
Science has identified expressive writing as one of the most effective “self-help” methods to deal with emotional pain arising from many kinds of traumas and difficult experiences.
Yep. The effectiveness of expressive writing has been validated by 100’s of scientific studies, looking at all manner of issues.
Here’s a partial list: job loss, relationship difficulties, stress, sleep, work efficiency, immune function, improving medical markers of health for asthma, arthritis, and IBS, blood pressure, depression and anxiety symptoms, and reintegration after military deployments.
Okay, you get the picture. Expressive writing helps with lots of stuff. So how does it work?
Here’s the steps for writing to deal with emotional pain (and improve your general wellbeing).
Deal With Emotional Pain
1) Ask “Am I Ready?”
Where do you start with expressive writing?
First, make sure you have had some time since your trauma. Too soon and the emotional pain can be too raw.
Research suggests starting too soon doesn’t have the same benefits.
If you have faced a massive traumatic experience in your life within the last two to three weeks, it may be too early for you to write about it. At the very least, it may be too soon for you to deal with some of the deeper emotions that the trauma has awakened.
Some time has passed since the event and you feel like you’re ready to write about your emotional pain? Got a pen and journal ready?
2) Put Aside 20 Minutes On 4 Consecutive Days
Got spare time?
You need to put aside twenty minutes on four consecutive days.
Virtually every study conducted with expressive writing has asked people to write for about twenty minutes on three or four consecutive days
Can you write for more than twenty minutes?
Absolutely. Twenty minutes is only the minimum.
Same goes for the four days, that’s the minimum.
If you end up writing for more than twenty minutes, that’s great. However, the following day, you still need to write for at least twenty minutes.
You’ve set aside some time over the next four days to write. Great. What’s next?
3) Write About What’s Bothering You
The easiest way to start writing is to write about whatever is bothering you the most right now.
your goal is to write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the trauma or emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore this event and how it has affected you.
Something keeping you up at night?
That’s a great place to start.
Write about what keeps you awake at night. The emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing. In most cases, this is quite straightforward. You know why you are having sleep problems, why you keep thinking of the upheaval.
Begin with this upheaval, but if you find yourself moving to another topic, go with it…all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives — you can write about those as well. What you choose to write about should be something that is extremely personal and important for you
From there, it’s pretty straightforward.
4) Just Write
Worried about grammar, spelling, the stuff that your high school English teacher harassed you about? Relax.
That’s not what this is about.
You are the only audience for your writing. The aim is to be as open and honest with yourself as you can be.
The purpose of expressive writing is for you to be completely honest and open with yourself. Your audience is you and you alone. Studies have shown that when people disclose a trauma to someone they don’t know or trust, they hold back — and don’t show benefits.
Can you change topics? Go ahead.
You can write about the same thing for all four days or about different things on each day — that is entirely up to you…The important thing is that you really let go and write about your deepest emotions and thoughts.
You can write longhand, you can type, you can do more than four sessions.
Worried you’ll run out of things to write about in twenty minutes?
Repeat yourself. Just aim to explore your deepest thoughts and fears. That is the key idea.
Before I forget, there is one safety rule to bear in mind.
5) Remember The “Flip Out” Rule
The “Flip Out” Rule is simply that, if you feel you’ll get too upset writing about a particular topic, don’t write about it.
Write about something that feels safe for you to explore.
we have instituted the Flip-Out Rule in our research and workshops. It’s very simple: If you feel you will get too upset when you write about a particular topic, don’t write about it. If you think that something you will say will cause you to flip out, don’t say it. This rule is very simple and has been quite effective.
And don’t be surprised if you feel a little worse for wear initially after writing. That’s okay.
Many people often feel somewhat sad or depressed after writing, especially on the first day or two. If this happens to you, it is completely normal. These feelings usually last only a few minutes and, in some cases, hours — much like the way you feel after seeing a sad movie. If possible, plan to have some time to yourself after writing to reflect on the issues you have been dealing with.
So that’s the basic expressive writing method.
As you can see, the expressive writing approach is pretty straightforward.
Just 20 minutes of writing for four days is generally enough to provide most people with some relief from emotional pain.
Want to know what else helps when using the expressive writing approach to deal with emotional pain?
Here are a few tips from the research we can use to get more out of our expressive writing.
6) Enhance Your Expression
Create Your Story
One of the benefits of expressive writing comes from making sense of what has happened to us, taking our disorganised ideas and creating a coherent story.
Immediately after a trauma, things often seem out of control and disconnected. One goal of expressive writing is to begin to put things together again.
One way of accomplishing this is to make a meaningful story of what happened and how it is affecting you. Many argue that the brain is a narrative organ and that story-making is hardwired into our very nature. Creating a narrative, including a coherent beginning, middle, and end, is a well-documented part of trauma treatment and holds much promise for benefits from writing about trauma.
What’s one way of putting things together in a story?
Think: Past, present, future.
In your writing, try to tie this traumatic experience to other parts of your life — your childhood, your relationship with your parents, close friends, lovers, or others important to you. You might link your writing to your future and who you would like to become, to who you have been in the past, or to who you are now.
Label Your Emotions
Labelling what you are feeling is important.
People tend to benefit most from expressive writing if they openly acknowledge their emotions.
Recent studies by multiple labs are converging on some common guidelines. People tend to benefit most from expressive writing if they openly acknowledge emotions. Emotional experience is part of a trauma. The ability to feel and label both the negative and the positive feelings that occurred during and following the trauma is important.
Try to see things from different perspectives.
People who are able to see things through the eyes of others gain more benefit.
People who have experienced a trauma initially see it from one perspective — their own. Indeed, when individuals first write about a massive upheaval, they first describe what they saw, felt, and experienced. Recent studies indicate that people who benefit the most from writing have been able to see events through others’ eyes. Indeed, even writing about a personal event in the third person has proven beneficial.
Find Your Voice
In your writing, find your own voice.
You don’t need to try to impress anyone.
A guiding principle of expressive writing is that you express yourself openly and honestly. People who write in a cold, detached manner and who quote Shakespeare, Aristotle, or Henry Ford may be fine historians and may even write a great editorial in the local newspaper. But impressive writing is not the point of expressive writing. People who benefit the most from writing are able to find a voice that reflects who they are.
So that’s the expressive writing approach for those that want an evidence-backed self-help approach to deal with emotional pain and lessen the physical health impact of traumas and life stressors.
Is expressive writing a silver bullet? No.
If you’ve experienced significant trauma you’ll always be best advised to talk to a professional.
But expressive writing may just be a step that helps you get ready to talk.
1) Ask “Am I ready”?
Let at least 3 weeks pass after your trauma before starting.
2) Put aside 20mins on 4 consecutive days.
20mins x 4 days is the minimum.
3) Write about what’s bothering you.
Just write about whatever’s on your mind.
4) Just write.
Be as open and honest with yourself as possible.
5) Remember the “flip out” rule.
If it’s too painful, don’t write about it.
6) Enhance your expression.
Create your story; label emotions; change perspectives; find your voice.
Here’s something to pin