Living with stress is something that many people think of as being almost inevitable. Life is stressful and all we can do is suck it up and carry on anyway… right?
This seems to be a point of view that is held by men in particular. Men are much less likely than women to talk about their problems as a rule and it should perhaps come as no surprise then that they’re also more likely to suffer heart attacks, take up drinking or commit suicide.
For many men, the idea of talking about stress or admitting that we’re struggling can feel like giving up and may even seem like being ‘less of a man’ (though of course this is not solely a male problem). In fact though, no one should have to go through their stress alone and talking about problems is a useful and practical tool for getting through them.
How Writing Helps
Often we don’t just censor what we say, we censor what we think. Sometimes we won’t even admit to ourselves that we’re feeling overwhelmed, lost or stressed. As a result, we keep things ‘bottled up’ and they stay on our mind, elevating our heart rate and blood pressure in the process.
Talking to someone can help to externalize this stress and lighten the burden. And failing this, writing down your problems in some kind of journal can be just as effective.
Think this is just a nice idea? Actually, it’s backed up by quite a lot of evidence. In one study it was found that people who had lost their jobs were actually more likely to be find employment sooner if they wrote down their feelings (1). The reason presumably is that they became more positive and thus performed better in subsequent interviews and opened themselves up for more opportunities.
In other study, it was found that writing about stressful events could help individuals to see the positive ‘silver linings’ of those situations (2). Another concluded that ‘FEW’ (focused expressed writing) could act as a useful substitute to therapy for those unwilling or unable to receive it (3). Expressive writing has even been found to help reduce the symptoms of asthma (4)!
Seeing a professional therapist is likely to still be more effective than expressive writing alone as therapists can provide feedback and insight and teach useful coping strategies and techniques. That said though, writing is a highly effective alternative and could be especially effective when used in combination with psychotherapeutic intervention. Cognitive behavioral therapists in fact do recommend journaling for the treatment of many conditions.
How to Use Expressive Writing
With all that in mind, you might find yourself itching to put pen to paper and put the world to rights. So how do you go about this the right way?
The good news is that there is no ‘right way’ as such. The whole point is that you can write about whatever it is that’s on your mind and express your feelings. Grammar and spelling don’t matter and you should approach the subject as you might a therapist. Don’t try and ‘force’ yourself to write about traumatic events of the past – just write about how you’re feeling at the time and let the rest flow naturally. Pennebaker, who originally suggested writing therapy, used to encourage patients to write about traumatic events but there is no need to ‘go deep’ right away. Instead, try to make this a regular process and experiment with different subjects as you feel. You’ll get there eventually!
One other tip is to write somewhere private and to destroy what you’ve written afterward. Even if you’re not worried about someone finding your writing, destroying the evidence will encourage you to be much more honest and open with yourself which is the objective. Head somewhere you won’t be disturbed and consider burning the page after you’ve done your writing – a ceramic flower pot can be useful for this!