Journaling

Feeling emotional? Write it down
By Nathan Day Wilson
Published: Friday, February 5, 2010 9:11 AM US/eastern

I love the ability of writing to change lives. My life, your life, our lives as a community — writing has the capacity to change them all, and change them for the better.

One of the ways our individual lives can be changed through writing is by keeping a journal. Psychologists have found that writing about your feelings can help the brain overcome emotional upsets and leave you feeling happier.

In particular, brain scans on volunteers showed that putting feelings down on paper reduces activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the intensity of our emotions. They’re calling this the “Bridget Jones effect.” Kind of lame shorthand if you ask me, but nobody did. And my wife likes those movies, so don’t tell her I said that.

Here’s the skinny: Whether you elaborate on your feelings in a diary, pen lines of poetry or jot down song lyrics to express negative emotions, there appears to be positive healthy effects. UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman said the effect differs from catharsis, which usually involves coming to terms with an emotional problem by seeing it in a different light. Lieberman said, “Writing seems to help the brain regulate emotion unintentionally. Whether it’s writing things down in a diary, writing bad poetry or making up song lyrics that should never be played on the radio, it seems to help people emotionally.”

I think Lieberman was talking about me when he said that about bad song lyrics, but I’ll try not to be offended. Too much. I’ll deal with it in my journal.

The psychologists investigated the effect by inviting people to visit the lab for a brain scan before asking them to write for 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Half of the participants wrote about a recent emotional experience, while the other half wrote about a neutral experience. Those who wrote about an emotional experience showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex, which in turn decreased neural activity linked to strong emotional feelings.

Two parts of this study surprised me: Men benefited from writing about their feelings more than women, and writing by hand had a bigger effect than typing.

A quote from Lieberman made sense: “The reason (that men tend to show greater benefits) might be that women more freely put their feelings into words, so this is less of a novel experience for them.” Living in a house of all women, I can witness to the brother’s comments about women freely verbalizing their feelings!

Anyhow, the point of this column, if there is one, is that writing about your emotions can help. It can help you recover from emotional distress, process situations, release tension and more.

So get out those pens and write!

Wilson is pastor of First Christian Church, 118 W. Washington St. His book, “Waging Peace Amidst Raging War: The Impact of Religious Peacemaking Institutions” is to be published in the fall. His e-mail is nathan@fccshelby.org.

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