Reduce Stress and Anxiety with this Simple, Proven Method
I had an unforgettable therapy session with a client some years ago.
This was a long-term client for whom seeing a counsellor, indeed the whole realm of emotions, was foreign.
He would sit upright and alert but always look at ease. He was never phased by his high-pressure executive responsibilities. He was just as smart and amiable as he looked.
His intermittent panic, anxiety and confusion would be a surprise to anyone — as much of a surprise as they were to himself.
Now he sat forward and peered at me as he recounted his weekend…
A quiet night in with a movie had turned into a dramatic therapeutic breakthrough. He did something that he could’t ever recall doing in his life.
He wept. And wept.
(I keep thinking the movie was Terms of Endearment but I think that’s my memory playing tricks — that was the first movie that made me seriously cry, when I was a kid.)
In any case it was one of those undeniably sad movies, but to be honest we never did work out a specific trigger within the movie that caused this cathartic reaction. Perhaps he was just finally ready and able to feel more of his emotions.
And not that our therapy work was then done and dusted, but that powerful accessing of held-back feeling did herald easier-going progress from that point on. As emotions surfaced, panic and anxiety subsided. It was a positive, though not pain-free process.
What makes you unwell
The point of telling you that story is not to suggest that you need to rage and weep, necessarily.
Nor is it that we all have a deep, hidden well of emotion within us.
Rather that it is important to be aware of the way we can hold back feelings. It is common for us to pack them away, and to store hurt, anguish, grief and trauma in an unprocessed way. It is an understandable self-protective reaction to emotion that we experience as threatening to overwhelm us.
Sometimes we know this is what we do, other times (like in my client’s experience) we push the emotions and memories down without knowing it. And this is what can lead to a range of problems:
- anxiety, depression and panic
- numbness and/or substance abuse or other destructive behaviour
- relationship difficulties (work and/or personal)
- greater risk of suffering from stress, including medical issues like high blood pressure, weight problems, compromised immunity.
Difficult experiences that we don’t or aren’t able to process, make sense of, or make peace with, linger within us, exerting pressure somehow, some time.
What can make you feel better
All of us will at some point experience symptoms like those listed above (even if we don’t have a well of emotion that we’ve unconsciously buried).
And obviously I can recommend seeing a good counsellor or therapist as one way to get help to alleviate pain (or numbness) and address its causes. However counselling may not be what you want or need or can practically manage right now. Or maybe you are in therapy but want to do more yourself between sessions.
There is plenty you can do to facilitate emotional regulation and to feel better, including developing awareness and a mindful approach, meditation, yoga and other body work practices, as well as improving your lifestyle generally.
But what I wanted to share more specifically is a powerful therapeutic intervention that you may like to try (with) or without seeing a counsellor. The expressive writing method has been researched and developed since the mid ‘80s by Professor James W. Pennebaker (2010):
In laboratory studies, when people are asked to write about emotional upheavals, for 15-20 minutes on at least three separate occasions, their health improves.
The method has been researched extensively—Pennebaker speaks of over 200 “published studies, four meta-analyses, and innumerable theoretical articles on expressive writing.”
The intervention has been found to assist in several significant ways: diminished health complaints, better sleep and improvements in immune function, working memory and grades.
You can read more about it in this very readable 2005 article on the University of Texas website: Writing to Heal. The article features an interesting insight:
People who are able to construct a story, to build some kind of narrative over the course of their writing seem to benefit more than those who don’t, ”Pennebaker says. “In other words, if on the first day of writing, people’s stories are not very structured or coherent, but over the three or four days they are able to come up with a more structured story, they seem to benefit the most.
This makes utter sense to me when I reflect on a significant aspect of my role as therapist: to listen and to facilitate a client’s story-telling. Together we work on creating a safe-enough space where it’s possible to make sense of their past or current experiences, where they can find words, confront feelings and reflect. So they can gain perspective, understanding, relief.
Instructions, tips and cautions
Here are the main points for you to consider when you give this method a try (drawn directly from the two articles cited above):
- write for a minimum of 15 minutes for at least three times (separated by as little as 10 minutes or as much as a week, with 1-2 days being ideal)
- write about what is bothering you
- write continuously for the entire 15 minutes without regard to spelling or grammar. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you’ve already written
- write for yourself only, with no clear audience (then destroy the writing to avoid any distress caused by it being found)
- If you wish to share your writing it is best to talk about it rather than to read it (given that you wrote it privately and uncensored)
- the method is not recommended immediately after an emotional upheaval (unless you would normally write at such a time and wish to do so)
- write about an event if you think or worry about it too much
- if an event no longer causes you any distress, don’t write about it
- write 3-4 times and if you find it beneficial you can continue but if not, try something else
- take care that your writing doesn’t become another form of rumination
Not sure this for you?
This technique is not for everyone. Perhaps that’s an obvious comment to make about any potentially therapeutic technique. However, don’t disregard it because you think it’s ‘just not your kind of thing’.
I can’t guarantee it will work for you but just because you don’t feel like doing it, or you think that writing is not your way, doesn’t mean it won’t work. Pennebaker specifically notes that there is some evidence that even writing periods of 3-5 minutes might be helpful.
In his book, Writing to Heal (2004), he writes:
People who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.”
Why not give it a try? Book a quiet, safe, private time for yourself and have a go. You’ll be giving yourself a real chance to feel better and be healthier.
As always you’re welcome to comment below, or if you prefer, email me with any questions or feedback—I’d like to hear how you go.