In this post, I want to discuss the third factor we identified in our research on personal resilience. It involves two things:
- Attending to and clarifying your feelings about distressing experiences.
- Expressing those clarified feelings in a safe way that enables you to feel clearer and better about them.
As with the other two factors, this one has been the object of much research. James Pennebaker was the researcher who first identified it as important. He and his co-workers found that women who reported having been sexually abused also reported, later in life, a markedly elevated number of symptoms of ill health. However, if they had opportunities to express their feelings about the experience, the symptoms were markedly diminished.
There is good research that supports the idea that expressing feelings reduces bodily responses to stress. For example, Robert Levenson found that people who participated in an experiment in which they were required to watch a gruesome video of the amputation of a human limb had stronger physiological reactions to the experience if they were also asked to hide those reactions. (The video was gruesome enough that even those told to conceal their reactions were not fully able to comply.)
This and similar research indicates that it is a healthy thing to spend the time and effort to understand your feelings and to find a way to articulate them.
A very good method is to talk to a well-trusted friend. Of course, that kind of friend is often not available. Be careful about expressing your private reactions to people who are not solidly on your side. Instead of helping, it can make things worse, amplify stress, and turn a small problem into a big one.
Fortunately, research shows us that journaling privately to articulate how you feel about bad experiences also works. If you are in doubt about the supportiveness of potential listeners, it might be wise to use journaling.
In either case, focus on how you feel about the distressing situation. Do not worry about your style, grammar, etc. Clarifying what you feel is the crux of the matter.
Later we will have more to say about how to listen to yourself enough to clarify your feelings about bad situations.