With all that is going on in the world right now, there are also a lot of emotions coming up: pain, anger, grief, stress, and even glimmers of joy. Trying to process seemingly unwieldy emotions in the face of global trauma, increased complexity in the workplace, and the hectic pace of daily life can be a daunting task. At times, it can feel almost impossible. The following two stories explore a powerful technique for grounding in the midst of uncertainty.
James Pennebaker got married right out of college, before he became a distinguished professor of psychology. Three years in, however, he and his wife started to question their relationship, and Pennebaker sank into depression. He ate less, drank more, took up smoking, and grew increasingly isolated from the people he cared about. One morning, Pennebaker climbed out of bed and sat down at his typewriter. He stared at the machine for a moment, worked up his courage, then started writing freely and frankly about his marriage, his parents, his sexuality, his career, and even his mortality. As he wrote, and continued to write in the days that followed, his depression lifted, and a sense of liberation crept over him. He began to reconnect with his deep love for his wife, and started to see the purpose and possibility in his life. Pennebaker’s experience sparked 40 years of research into the relationship between writing and emotional processing.
Over the course of his career, Pennebaker found that people who wrote about their emotionally charged episodes—even for just 20 minutes a day for a few days—experienced a marked increase in their physical and mental wellbeing.
They were less depressed and less anxious. In the months after they began writing, they had lower blood pressure, better immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported improvements in their relationships, memory, and career.
When I first discovered Pennebaker’s research, I was struck by the way it echoed my own teenage experience journaling about my father’s cancer. While my father was dying—and then when he was gone—my life was painfully different, and writing helped me voice my regret about all the time I hadn’t spent with him and all the things I hadn’t said. I also wrote about the moments I didn’t regret and how I’d done the best I could. Through that secret, silent correspondence with myself, I learned to sit with all my emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant.
Research shows that the psychological benefits of journaling increase when you approach it as a private activity. You just don’t get the same results when you’re writing for an audience, real or imagined.
This is a technique that you can try yourself, both in moments of struggle and in your everyday life. Putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard can be enormously helpful in processing your emotions. So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by an emotion, sit with yourself for a moment and try this helpful processing technique—you may be surprised how well it works.
With courage and compassion,