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Why Talking About Our Problems Helps So Much (and How to Do It)
By Eric Ravenscraft
April 3, 2020
The New York Times
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 or repair shop you can take your feelings to. But you do have one tool in your kit you can always use: talking about your feelings. Even just speaking about your feelings out loud to another person can help. So why do we avoid it or believe it doesn’t work?
There are a lot of reasons talking about our problems can be difficult. Some people (especially men) are socialized to internalize feelings, rather than give voice to them. Sometimes the very emotions you’re dealing with — like guilt over something you did, or shame about how you think you’re perceived — can feel so overwhelming that you can’t get up the motivation to talk it out.
Regardless of the reason you might keep it in, talking has powerful psychological benefits that might not be obvious. “Talking about it” is a broad phrase, though, so let’s clarify a bit. When we discuss talking about your problems, it can take a few forms.
■ Venting to a trusted friend. Sometimes you just need to let out how you’re feeling with no real plan for a solution. “I had the worst day at work!” can be the start of a conversation that helps you process the stress of a hard day.
■ Discussing a conflict with a partner. Fights happen in relationships. But keeping your feelings to yourself can cause issues between you and your partner to fester. While working toward constructive solutions to your relationship problems is always a good thing, just being able to be open about your feelings with your partner can make your communication healthier as well.
■ Talk therapy with a licensed therapist. There’s a reason people will pay money to talk through problems with a therapist. Whether you need to discuss a mental illness you’re struggling with, are in couples counseling to work on your relationship or just need someone to talk to who knows how to handle stress, a good therapist can help you hash out your emotions.
■ Being open about your struggles. Sometimes venting to no one in particular can help not just you, but others as well. For example, in 2015 Sammy Nickalls, a writer, started the social media hashtag #TalkingAboutIt to encourage people to be open about their struggles with mental illness. The act of sharing what daily life is like can help you and others with the same struggles realize that you’re not alone and that what feels overwhelming is actually normal.
What all of these forms 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 certainly good, but just verbalizing how you’re feeling can, itself, be part of the solution as well.
Why does talking about it help?
Getting a new job, breaking up with a bad partner or investing in your own self-improvement are all practical things you can do to solve problems in your life. But what good does just talking about it do? When you’re fighting the exhausting uphill battle against your own negative feelings, it can seem as if talking about it is the least productive thing you can do.
In reality, your brain and body get a lot out of talking.
When you are feeling very 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 if necessary, and store the information in your memory so you can recognize the threat later. When you get stressed or overwhelmed, this part of your brain can take control and even override more logical thought processes.
Research from U.C.L.A. 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 afterward 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 suggested that writing about traumatic experiences or undergoing talk therapy had a positive impact on a patient’s health and immune system. The study argues that holding back thoughts and emotions is stressful. You have the 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 licensed therapist, will automatically fix everything and immediately make you happy and healthy. But, like eating better and exercising, it can contribute to overall improvement in your well-being. More important, 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.
How can we do it better?
Crucially, not every form of talking about problems aloud can help. In fact, multiple studies examining college students, young women and working adults suggest that co-rumination — or 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.
■ Choose the right people to talk to. If you’ve ever talked about how you’re feeling and it seems as if you got nothing out of it, you might be talking to the wrong person. Having a trusted friend who will support you (without enabling bad habits like co-rumination) can help. If you need specific advice on a problem, find someone who has faced similar problems and, ideally, has resolved them. And if you need a lot of talk time, try spreading your conversations out to multiple people. One person can get worn out, and having a broad social support system lets you distribute that load.
■ Choose the right time to talk. Just as important as choosing who to talk to is when you talk to them. Your friends may want to support you, but they have their own lives. Asking if they have the time and energy to talk before unpacking your emotional bags can help you both be better equipped for the conversation. This also means being courteous about their time. Sometimes crises happen and you might need to interrupt someone, but most supportive conversations can wait.
■ Find a therapist, even if you’re not mentally ill. Therapists often have a reputation for being necessary only if you have a mental illness. This isn’t the case. You can go to therapy if you are feeling overly stressed, if you are not sleeping well or if you just want someone to talk to. Think of it less like seeing a doctor and more like a personal trainer. Also, remember that just as with doctors, mechanics or anyone else you hire, there are good ones and bad ones (or bad ones for you), so if you don’t have success the first time, try someone else.
■ Give yourself an endpoint. Not all conversations about your problems need to lead to a plan of action for tangible change, but they do need to lead to something other than more complaining. Give yourself space to vent about your feelings and, while doing so, focus on how you are feeling throughout the process. If you are getting more worked up, take a break. If you find yourself talking about the same things over and over without gaining any new understanding or feeling any relief, try something else to process how you are feeling. You may not be able to fix the external problem that is bothering you, but the goal should at least be to improve your mood about it.
■ Talk about the good as well as the bad. Expressing how you’re feeling is healthy. Expressing yourself only when you feel bad isn’t. Whether you are talking to friends, partners or on social media, be sure to share your good experiences and feelings when they come up. Talking about these experiences can reinforce them in your brain and make it easier to break out of negative thought patterns later. Plus, it helps build your relationships with the people you are close enough to talk to.
Of course, this process can still be messy. Some days, talking about your problems may just be complaining about something that happened at work, but others it may involve crying into someone’s shoulder 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.