Saying how you feel
November 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

In 1988, James Pennebaker, an American social psychologist, conducted an extremely novel and unorthodox research study with a group of undergraduate students. He asked 50 students with no major mental health difficulties, to write about their private traumatic experiences for four consecutive days. 

Participants in this study were asked to complete a number of questionnaires about their mental health and were then given the following instructions:

During each of the four writing days, I want you to write about the most traumatic and upsetting experiences of your entire life. You can write on different topics each day or on the same topic for all four days. The important thing is that you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings. Ideally, whatever you write about should deal with an event or experience that you have not talked with others about in detail.

After four days of writing, students completed more questionnaires and then were then followed to see how well they did in their activities and whether or they visited the doctors office. Students also gave some blood so that researchers could examine the impact of writing about trauma on blood pressure and immune system functioning, as well as liver and lung function. 

The results of the study were striking. 

Students who wrote about their private traumatic experiences were initially upset, not surprisingly. However, students also experienced a wide range of long-term benefits for both their health and performance at school and work. 

Improvement in mood, well-being and mental health:

  • Greater overall psychological well-being
  • Fewer depressive symptoms
  • Fewer PTSD symptoms
  • Improved mood/affect

Improvement in health behaviours:

  • Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor
  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved lung function
  • Improved liver function
  • Fewer days in the hospital 

Improvements at school and work:

  • Higher grade point average
  • Improved working memory
  • Reduced absenteeism from work
  • Quicker re-employment after job loss
  • Improved sporting performance 

The benefits of writing and self-expression 

Since Pennebaker’s groundbreaking writing intervention, hundreds of studies with people of all ages and backgrounds have examined the benefit of saying how you feel in writing, which is often referred to as expressive writing

Of course, expressive writing is not for everyone, and it may not work for everyone. But, expressive writing is extremely cost-effective and can be utilized almost anywhere. Expressive writing appears to be more effective for certain problem types (anxiety, depression and PTSD) than for others (weight loss, impulse control, and studying problems). The overall results of a large study suggest that expressive writing, like most interventions, has a moderate degree of effectiveness. 

Why does saying how you feel provide such benefit?

Understanding how saying how you feel, whether verbally or in writing, has been difficult. So much happens when you put how you feel into words. 

The neurobiology of saying how you feel.  

Recent neuroimaging studies have shown that affect-labelling (i.e., saying how you feel with words) reduces the response of the amygdala, which is the emotion centre of your brain when processing emotionally unpleasant images. This and other studies have shown that the simple act of putting feelings into words can reduce emotional experiences. Even though saying how you feel may not seem like an emotion regulation strategy, these studies suggest the opposite. Putting your feelings into words is the first step in coping with difficult emotions — even if it doesn’t feel like it. 

The interpersonal psychology of saying how you feel.

So much happens when you decide to say how you feel, in addition to the important events that happen at a neurobiological level.  Saying how you feel with someone else, such as a friend, family member or even a stranger, changes your experience from something that can often be extremely lonely to a shared experience with someone else. Sharing negative emotions is inherently risky — you are not certain what someone else will think about you or what you have to say, and you are not certain about what they will do. 

Saying how you feel to someone else can also be reassuring, validating and normalizing — when that person reacts in a supportive way.  Sharing your feelings with a supportive person reminds you that it is okay to feel what you are experiencing, that you are not going to be treated differently and that you are not alone. And finally, sharing how you are feeling with others creates the opportunity for others to provide new insights, suggest solutions and just jump in and help out.  

Who are you going to call? 

One of the essential strategies of interpersonal psychotherapy is building and working your list of people you can talk to when things go wrong, or you just have a bad day. The people on your list are the people that you can text, call or catch up with to whom you vent, unload or just say, “you are never going to believe what this prof has dreamt up now to stress us out even more.”

Build your ‘list’ of people.

The first step is to write down the names of five to ten people that you could call and vent to. Consider everyone, mom, dad, your siblings, friends, cousins, classmates from school, and classmates you haven’t seen in a while. Even the guy across from your apartment or in the coffee can help. 

Work your list. 

The next step is to work your list. At the end of the day, check in with someone and tell them about your day. It doesn’t have to be a bad day that was filled with disasters. Any kind of day works — boring, hard, long, or fun. 

Talking to people will make you feel a little bit better. 

Click here and download the worksheet. 

Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338–346. 
Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 239–245. 
Effects of expressive writing on depressive symptoms—A meta‐analysis—Reinhold—2018—Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice—Wiley Online Library. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2020.
Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 823–865.
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological science18(5), 421–428.
Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124. 

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