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More PsychNotes: Emotions

When You are Distressed: Write!
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

pen and paper
I have often recommended to clients to write letters to release emotions. Sometimes these letters were to themselves and sometimes they were directed to other people. However, they were never to be shared with others so as to reduce self-censoring which can limit the emotional release.

Although I've found this to be a useful tool, I didn't know that one of the reasons for its effectiveness is that it allows self-distancing from the emotions. According to recent research by Park and colleagues (2016) expressive writing improves emotional well-being, and possibly physical health, through the following process:

1) Self-distancing. When engaged in expressive writing, the individual is able to step back and examine the situation from a more distant perspective.

2) Emotional processing. When people distance from the emotions it allows them to process the emotions with less associated negativity. By processing the emotions without the reactivity they are able to make meaning of the situation.

3) Creation of coherent story. People make meaning of a situation because as they write they tend to create a story. When they do, they tend to reduce negative emotion words and the first-person “I”, and instead, increase words related to understanding the cause.

Thus, through this process of self-distancing, they are able to develop a different perspective. Some people misunderstand emotional distancing to mean trying to suppress emotions. However, as illustrated by this research, emotional distancing occurs when you confront the situation and process the emotions. Avoiding the emotions elicited by a distressing situation doesn't allow the same kind of processing of the emotional distress.

How to Engage in Expressive Writing

The following method was used by the researchers:

1) Think about a distressing event for 60 seconds.

2) Write for 15 minutes. Write your deepest thoughts about the event. Include thoughts about the past, present, and future as well as how it impacts your relationships with others.

3) Do this same exercise for 3 days in a row.

You do not need to try and make emotional distancing occur. Instead, just write what comes to mind which will allow the natural healing mechanism of self-distancing, emotional processing, and creating meaning.

Park, J., Ayduk, Ö. and Kross, E. (2016). Stepping Back to Move Forward: Expressive Writing Promotes Self-Distancing. Emotion, 16, 349–364. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000121

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