COPING THROUGH WRITING

You may know someone who keeps a daily diary. Usually, we don’t think much about diaries because they typically involve just reporting on a day’s activities and events. We bet, however, there have been times when you felt hurt or angry, sat down and wrote about it, and almost miraculously felt better about things. Sounds like a rage room, although on paper and certainly less destructive.

Let’s also note we’re not talking about writing a “hate letter” to someone who did you wrong. That sort of aggressive reaction aimed directly at someone really solves little and, like being in the rage room, tends to teach you that lashing out with verbal aggression is a good way to deal with emotional upheaval (see blog of 6/29/16). No, we’re talking about the kind of writing that lays out how you feel as the result of some event. Examples might include the breakup of a relationship, death of a loved one, being in an accident, being a victim of crime, etc.

There is solid evidence from psychology research showing that such writing has definite positive effects and gives the writer a feeling of dealing with the challenges of stress better. Writers feel psychologically stronger and more empowered.

What’s going on here? Does putting your thoughts on paper function like being in a rage room? Does writing give you some sort of energy release of negative thoughts and feelings, “getting it off your chest,” and cleansing yourself of negative emotions? Probably not. In fact, researchers in this area stress writing as a process that allows you to restructure your thinking about troublesome issues. That is, as you write about things bothering you, you’re actually dealing with conflicts at some intellectual and cognitive level, and allowing yourself to see things in a new perspective while thinking things through.

Writing does not have to be about things bothering you in order to bring you positive outcomes. In fact, research also shows that when people write “to themselves” about a committed relationship they’re in, and describe their deepest thoughts and feelings concerning this relationship, their subsequent email communication with their partner contains more positively expressive phrases that elicit similar phrases in return. Putting positive thoughts and feelings about a relationship down on paper actually influenced, for the better, the nature of communication with the partner. There was measurable improvement in the stability of the relationship.

Consider what we’re saying here: Put your thoughts down on paper; write down how you feel about emotional issues in your life, how you deal with them, and how you react to them. Doing so can potentially benefit you psychologically and enhance communication in your interpersonal relationships. This is called effective coping! If you’re in a committed relationship, now might be a good time to take a break and email or text your significant other. Share some positive emotions; in that positive context perhaps even share some things that have been bothering you emotionally. That’s called “communication.”

Once again, just like we mentioned in the rage room entry, keep in mind the common “release-of-emotion” explanation often mistakenly given for positive effects. Sure, getting things off your chest can feel good in the short run, but you run the danger of learning to be aggressive toward others in getting your way. For long-term benefits, use writing as a way to help you restructure your thinking about an issue, or remind you to reach out to someone who really means something to you.

Imagine a couple of college friends having a “tiff.” Judy yells at Mary for forgetting to join her the previous day for a study session as planned; Judy says she’s hurt that Mary would “blow her off” in such a way, especially when she told Mary she needed help with the material.

“Well,” Mary says, “here I was sitting in my room waiting for you to call and say you were ready to study. When you didn’t call I figured you got hung up or maybe ran into Bill. So I just decided to do something else.” Judy says, “I figured you were blowing me off and didn’t care about how I do in the course. Some friend!”

For the next few minutes, they talk and Judy shows her a letter she wrote that expressed some of her frustration and hurt when she thought Mary was no longer interested in helping her. The letter helped Judy feel better in getting her frustration out, but the reason she felt better after writing it was because venting her emotions allowed her to reconstruct her thinking that Mary had deserted her. “You know, as I read this letter again and again last night I began to think that maybe I had misinterpreted the situation. Now I see that’s exactly what happened and that we’re still friends.”

Now that’s communication! Use it and your coping efforts will be much more effective.

 

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