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When your car breaks down, you either know how to fix it or how to find someone who can. Emotions, on the other hand, are a little harder to fix. There is no wrench you can grab, but there’s one tool you can always use: talking. But there’s more to the age-old advice to just “talk it out” than there seems. This article will explore the evidence that explains why it’s so helpful.
Talking has powerful psychological benefits that might not be obvious on the surface. “Talking about it” is a broad phrase, so let’s clarify this a bit. When we address talking about your problems, it can take a few forms.
What all of these have in common is that they are conversations specifically designed to examine and express the emotions you are having, rather than building to a specific solution. Figuring out things you can do to improve your situation is undoubtedly useful, but just verbalising how you’re feeling can be part of the solution.
When you’re experiencing intense feelings — especially fear, aggression or anxiety — your amygdala is running the show. This is the part of the brain that, among other things, handles your fight or flight response. It is the job of the amygdala, and your limbic system as a whole, to figure out if something is a threat, devise a response to that threat, and store the information in your memory to recognise the danger later. When you get stressed or overwhelmed, this part of your brain can take control and even override more logical thought processes.
Research from UCLA suggests that putting your feelings into words — a process called “affect labeling” — can diminish the response of the amygdala when you encounter things that are upsetting. This is how, over time, you can become less stressed over something that bothers you. For example, if you got in a car accident, even being in a car immediately afterwards could overwhelm you emotionally. But as you talk through your experience, put your feelings into words and process what happened, you can get back in the car without having the same emotional reaction.
Research from Southern Methodist University suggests that writing about traumatic experiences or undergoing counselling positively impacted a patient’s health and immune system. The study argues that holding back thoughts and emotions is stressful. You have negative feelings either way, but you have to work to repress them. That can tax the brain and body, making you more susceptible to getting sick or just feeling awful.
None of that is to say that talking about your problems, or even talk therapy with a professional counsellor, will automatically fix everything and immediately make you happy and healthy. But, like eating better and exercising, it can contribute to the overall improvement in your well-being. More importantly, it can help you understand how and why you feel the way you do so you can handle your emotions more effectively in the future.
Crucially, not every form of talking about problems aloud can help. Multiple studies examining college students, young women and working adults suggest that consistently focusing on and talking about negative experiences in your life can have the opposite effect, making you more stressed and drawing out how long a problem bothers you.
To talk about your problems more constructively, there are a few key things you can do:
Of course, the counselling process can still be messy. Some days, talking about your problems may just be complaining about something that happened at work. Still, others may involve crying for an hour. It can feel embarrassing or uncomfortable the first few times, but the more you open up, the easier it will get to share how you feel.
Remember, though, you’re not alone. There are people willing and waiting to help. Get in touch with Restoration Therapy, and we’ll put you in touch with a counsellor.