For some, pouring out your feelings can make you feel worse.
Let’s say a woman we’ll call Sarah is brooding over a quarrel with her sister. After a fit of weeping and a long talk with her husband, Jake, she decided she’d call her sister on Sunday afternoon to settle the conflict, while Jake watched the football game. Now it’s Sunday and she can’t call; she’s just sitting on the couch staring into space.
Jake passes her a beer and says, “Watch the game then.”
Sarah says, “I can’t believe she said that.”
Jake says, “She’s a nutcase.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” she says.
“Beer works for me,” he says.
“I’ll try that writing exercise,” Sarah says. She grabs her smartphone, and quickly pulls up the instructions.
“What do you do?” Jake asks.
Sarah reads: “Studies have shown that writing about negative events can have psychological and physical benefits. For the next 10 minutes, please write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the event that you have described. In your writing you might tie your topic to your relationship with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to become, or who you are now. The important thing is that you dig down to your very deepest emotions and thoughts and explore them in your writing.”
Jake groans. “What?” Sarah says.
“I guarantee you’ll be a mess if you do that,” he says.
“Well, I’m not like you. I can’t just watch guys running around a field and forget my problems,” she responds, her eyes moistening a bit. Jake puts his arm around her, gives her a squeeze and says, “Call her.” Sarah gets up and says, “I’m going to write first,” and walks off. Jake sighs, grabs a handful of corn chips and sinks into the sofa. He hasn’t even told Sarah that his son called twice asking for money Jake can’t spare, and he hasn’t yet said a definitive “No.”
Brooding — scientists call it “rumination” — may explain why women are twice as likely as men to become depressed. When cows ruminate, or “chew the cud,” they regurgitate food and masticate it a second time. Ruminators mentally replay painful events over and over, pondering their meaning and causes. Their real question is “What’s wrong with me?” Jake is right: When ruminators follow the instructions Sarah read, pouring out their feelings, they can end up further sunk, according to a recent study by Natasha Odou, at Australian National University in Canberra, and Jay Brinker, now in Hawthorn, at the Swinburne University of Technology.
However, people who tend to be kind to themselves and understand that everyone has problems can feel better after a writing exercise. In the same study, Odou and Brinker gave another group of participants these instructions:
“Describe your feelings and thoughts about the event (that you had during the event and that you have now about the event) in an objective and non-judgmental way.
“Think of and write down ways in which other people also experience the event or similar events which indicate you are not the only one who experiences events like this.
“Write about how you might express understanding, kindness and concern to yourself (in the same way you might express concern to a friend who had undergone the experience).”
As predicted, the second writing exercise improved mood for most people — after only 10 minutes. Ruminators didn’t do as well but some perked up. That’s important: Although ruminators tend to see their regurgitating as a form of problem-solving, they can procrastinate on serious matters. In one study, they took 39 days longer to bring symptoms of breast cancer to a doctor.
On the other hand, Jake’s beer-chips-game approach may get him through Sunday, but may not help him stand firm with his son.
Researchers are studying the effect of different kinds of distraction, which need not be entirely avoidance. Current studies suggest that cultivating compassion for yourself and others can help get you through bad patches, think more clearly — and do what needs to be done.
April 03, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA