#3 A Writing Exercise: A Study in Contrast: Writing to Release Emotion & Writing to Contain Emotion
There are no two journals that are alike and no two people who use them in the same manner.The individuality of the journaling process is really amazing.The common thread of the process is the simple idea of writing for only yourself as an audience. And as I talk to people about their journaling, the only common thread I can define in the purpose is the idea of managing emotions.Most people write because it helps them emotionally, but how it helps is as unique as a particular person in a particular moment.
A great deal of psychological research has demonstrated what I see clinically: emotionally expressive writing has significant benefits.Some of these benefits, such as mood and symptom improvement, are predictable, while others, such as physical health improvements or occupational advancement, are a little more surprising.For an interesting overview of the research in this area, Iíd recommend James Pennebakerís book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (Guilford Press).
Many more recent research studies have looked at exactly how these benefits come about, and the findings have been less consistent.I think thatís because writing is such a flexible medium and each personís private style incorporates exactly what that person needs.But I also think there are themes about writing and emotion that help us think about and develop how we use journals.
One core theme can be expressed as a paradox of writing about feelings:writing can release emotion and writing can contain emotion.On one side, we can use writing to almost literally get feelings out of our bodies.Emotions are broadly based physical events and expressing them can release real physical tension.On the other end, emotions can feel diffuse and we can feel like weíre swimming in them, and at those times, the structure of writing can define a parameter that encloses the feeling.In this way, writing helps us own and incorporate the feeling.
The following two exercises are brief samples that illustrate this contrast in writing about emotions.Weíll approach a difficult emotion in two different ways, first to release it and then to contain it.
First, think of a situation that typically evokes an overwhelming feeling for you.Usually itís not so hard to think of something upsetting, from a small scale, like traffic irritations, to a large one, like a relationship betrayal or loss.To illustrate emotional release, the first exercise is a five-minute stream-of-consciousness writing exercise about the feeling.The idea behind stream-of-consciousness writing is to just keep moving, keep writing for the time period.Donít worry at all about the content, the correctness, being grammatical, polite or even coherent.Just try to let the writing physically flow for a few minutes.To focus this way, it helps to take a few deep breaths first.Set a timer or glance at your clock, think of your upsetting situation and then just start writing about how it makes you feel.
Now, that youíve used this basic venting technique, letís try putting some containing structure on that feeling.Feelings begin when the brain registers a stimulus through a sense organ and processes it through the limbic system, which is located below the cortex in the center of the brain.The limbic system relays information directly to the rest of the body as well as back to the cortex, where more conscious processing occurs.In other words, you can react physically before you are aware of a feeling, like when you jump out of the way of a moving object before youíve registered what it is.Or when you clench your fists before youíve noticed youíre getting mad.Then you usually have a thought and a behavioral choice about how you express your emotion.
For the second exercise, we will break down the feeling you have into the three separate components Iíve described:Physical Sensations, Thoughts and Behaviors.It helps to get a piece of paper and make three boxes or draw two lines to divide it into three sections and label them.Then go back to your upsetting situation and think about the sequence of how you experience the feeling.Jot down descriptions separately of: ~ your physical sensations - like muscle tension, heart racing, surges of energy ~your thoughts (it helps to put them in quotes), - like ďI canít believe what so-and-so did,Ē or ďI never do anything right,Ē or ďIíll never be happy againĒAND ~your behavior - like running away, screaming at somebody, freezing up.
When youíre done breaking your emotional experience into these three components, read them sequentially and consider the process of your experience.Next time youíre reacting to some version of your upsetting experience, you might notice the physical sensations before they get too imposing and you might be able to re-work your thinking or behavioral reaction to get a better result in your situation.Being aware of the components and the sequence can make your feeling a lot easier to manage.
After youíve done these two exercises, it might be interesting to write a little about the difference in the experiences.Hopefully, they will give you some sense of how writing with different structures can help emotionally in different ways.Building on this paradox opens infinite possibilities for writing experiments.Watch the Journalersí Clearinghouse for more ideas each month.