Although people have written journals for centuries, therapeutic writing was put under the microscope in the late 1980’s by psychologist James Pennebaker.
He found that people who were asked to write down their deepest thoughts and feelings handled past traumas and emotional stress significantly better. The potent mechanism wasn’t actually the words that landed on the page. It was the act of expressing the feelings, getting them out of the mind and into an external space.
Why is this different from talking to a therapist? Some people fear being judged or find it hard to talk about their feelings. This is common in men who have been brought up to hide their feelings or come from families where emotions weren’t discussed. Research also suggests that writing may use parts of the brain not involved in talking and be more accessible to men who struggle to talk about their feelings.
Since Pennebaker, there have been over 200 scientific studies that confirm the benefits of therapeutic writing. Some have suggested that writing actually boosts the immune system. Since suppressing emotional turmoil takes effort, over time this stresses the body and can damage physical health. The short-term relief is a decrease in negative mood, distress and physical symptoms and an uplift in positive mood. Longer term these benefits extend to physical and mental health improvements. As a psychologist, I believe this is one of the most accessible private methods for an individual who is looking for a way to help themselves feel better.
IT'S GOOD TO TALK. BUT WHAT IF YOU CAN'T FIND THE WORDS?
Following recent mental health campaigns, the good news is that men are talking more. But not all men find it easy to talk. Many flinch at the phrase ‘It’s good to talk’. They feel inadequate because they don’t know how to talk. Sure, banter with their mates comes easily to them. Get them talking about their team or their job and you won’t be able to shut them up. But emotional heart-to-hearts don’t come naturally to them. So, since we know that expressing rather than repressing our feelings is generally a good thing, these men need another way to open up.
Why do some men find it so hard to communicate their feelings? Too many still fail to seek help when they’re struggling emotionally. Our society, even though we’re becoming more enlightened about mental health, still doesn’t encourage the alpha-male to talk it out or have a good cry. Outdated stereotypes of masculinity continue to exist. These force men to ‘man up’, to put on a brave face and push on through the tough times. Little wonder then that far more women visit their doctor when depressed, while more men struggle on alone.
Emotional intelligence has its roots in our early interactions. When parents label a child’s feelings this helps the child recognise what they are feeling and to start to develop emotional intelligence. When a parent says, “I expect you're feeling jealous of the new baby because he takes up mummy’s time” the child learns why they feel the way they do. Use of emotional language in the family provided it is done in a measured and non-destructive manner, encourages positive self-expression and increases the likelihood of support during a crisis. However, many families avoid discussion of emotions because it leads to over-expression, blame and argument. Others avoid it because they’ve got into the habit of repression, and boys particularly are taught to control their emotions.
So even though men know it’s good to talk, some simply can’t do it. They didn’t get enough practice in childhood if they grew up in a non-communicative family, or in a particularly macho environment. Their emotional literacy suffered if they did not talk about emotions in the home or with their mates. Women naturally find a way around this, usually by forming close female friendships that are based on sharing and caring. It is harder for men.
Given this toxic masculinisation of males, it’s unsurprising that some men can’t talk, or won’t talk about their emotions. This is where writing therapy offers an alternative solution. Being guided to explore their feelings with writing prompts helps men get comfortable with emotional language. Writing therapy is also private. No-one has to listen to them and so no- one will judge their attempts. Writing is about private exploration, and a journal designed for men (such as MindJournal) gives them the tools they need to work through tough times.
The alarming fact that men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives shows there is still work to be done on mental health. And talking therapy may not be enough; it doesn’t suit all men and many who find it hard to talk will discover that writing comes much easier to them. It could even save their lives.
This article was kindly written by Professor Karen Pine.