For people who are new to this blog, we have been reviewing the three core factors that underlie resilience. Probably some of the original readers have forgotten those factors, so this review may be useful to them too.
In the previous two posts we described the first two factors. Here we deal with the third and final factor. This factor has to do with expressing or articulating your inner reactions to distressing situations.
James Pennebaker and his colleagues did a series of studies that linked expressiveness to improved physical and mental health. This work was summarized in Pennebaker’s book “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others”. Basically, they showed that clarifying and speaking of your feelings about things that distress you led to improved mental and even physical health.
It is easy to confuse the self-expression Pennebaker and his colleagues advocate with other actions that can even be damaging, so we will clarify the details of how to be expressive.
What You Need to Do to Improve Your Self-Understanding and To Express It.
To articulate your reactions, the first step is to understand them. You can, most likely, improve your understanding of your own reactions by way of inner dialogue. But there are advantages to having someone else also understand you.
Effective communication often happens in psychotherapy, but it also can take place in serious conversations with caring friends and other people who are good listeners, patient, and willing to let you know when they don’t understand.
If you have the right kind of listener, you might also have a dialogue that improves both their and your understanding of how you feel and why you feel as you do. It requires you to be very clear about your feelings because it is very hard to explain them in a way that effectively communicates them to others.
Both self-understanding and self-expression are of remarkable value in helping you keep in check what might otherwise be a damaging stress reaction.
Though there is a clear advantage to effectively sharing your deep feelings with supportive friends, such sharing is not always easy or even possible.
In such cases, writing down how you have reacted to a troubling situation, even without an outside listener, can be helpful. Studies have shown that writing a journal that focuses on expressing how you feel about hurtful experiences diminishes their negative consequences.
The following video has the founder of this journaling method showing how it is done:
A Special Kind of Focusing
Another method of clarifying feelings is through a process called Focusing. Privately talking to yourself about how you feel can be worth a lot. However, you have to focus in a specific way, emphasizing how you feel, and paying attention to your body’s reactions as you go through this inner dialogue.
The special kind of focusing developed by Eugene Gendlin is an outstanding way to learn from those bodily reactions. This special kind of focusing is not easy to explain, and we think that Ann Cornell Weiser has done the best job we have seen in explaining how to focus.
We often think that just keeping quiet about our feelings and ignoring them can make them irrelevant to our mental and physiological functions. James Lynch has shown clearly that emotions that cannot be formulated in our mind enough to be spoken or written tend to be expressed in harmful physiological reactions, for example, in elevated blood pressure.
Lynch’s work is not as well known as it should be. If his books are not available in your library, you could get them on Amazon, but as of this writing they are available on Abebooks for as little as $1.00 plus a few dollars in shipping fees.
He did extensive research on people who did not respond well to medicines in reducing dangerously high blood pressure. He concluded that they were often expressing their emotions by way of these elevations of blood pressure.
Learning to understand our reactions and express them in words instead of bodily reactions helps us be more resilient. This is not the same as “getting our anger out”. That is more likely to be damaging than helpful.
Learning to understand what you really feel about what is going in your life is healthy but take care that you express those feeling in situations that do not unnecessarily trigger hostile reactions in others.