When change and disruption feel like they are shaking our world at work, it can be hard to make sense of what’s happening and what it means for us. Yet in order to avoid being overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, and sadness, our brains crave some sense of clarity and certainty in order for us to have the confidence to move forward. But how can we find meaning in the midst of complex, confusing, and sometimes traumatic events at work?
“By changing the difficult thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with an experience, you can better put the confusion, uncertainty, or trauma behind you,” explained Dr. James Pennebaker from the University of Texas, when we interviewed him recently. “Hundreds of studies have found that expressive writing can help you come to a new understanding of your emotions and thoughts about events.”
How might this work?
Dr. Pennebaker’s research has found that often when you write something down, you no longer have to think about it. Similarly, when you resolve your problems by writing, you can stop dwelling upon them. It can also help you express your emotions, identify solutions, or benefit finding, which can help you cope with stress.
The active ingredients for why expressive writing can be so powerful include the following:
- Merely labeling or acknowledging that something was an upsetting experience in your life can be beneficial. Sometimes you may fool yourself by saying, “it wasn’t a big deal,” when in reality, it was.
- Putting an upsetting image of events into words can help you organize and then share it. Often you may not want to talk about an upsetting experience with others, as you may think it will make you look bad, offend others, or affect your social network. So instead, you keep it a secret and start obsessing about it.
- Writing helps you understand and gain a broader perspective on your experience. Constructing a story that ties in other aspects of the experience makes it more coherent.
- You’re less likely to toss and turn at night, and so will sleep much better. And better sleep is associated with reductions in depression and stress.
- It improves your working memory as your mind is no longer still processing the upsetting experience.
- It improves your connections and relationships as you can pay attention to others, rather than being distracted by your stress.
Substantial research has found that writing about a traumatic experience can improve your physical health, such as blood pressure, immune functioning, cholesterol levels, insulin, and blood glucose levels. You’re likely to sleep better and have a healthier lifestyle. And in the days and weeks after writing, you tend to be more creative and better at problem-solving.
How might you experiment with this to help you make meaning of what’s happening at work?
Dr. Pennebaker suggests trying the following:
- Setting your pace – If you’ve found it difficult to cope with a situation or transition, try to find some time each day, for a few days in a row, to write whatever comes to mind without overthinking or editing what you write. Studies suggest that writing, even for as little as five minutes a day, can be beneficial. And there is no evidence to suggest that writing for more than 2-3 days has any additional benefit. In fact, it may be detrimental, because if you write too much, you may start to become obsessed with your issues.
The goal of expressive writing is to come to terms with the topic you’re interested in, and then get back to your life. If you try it when you’re dealing with something big, but find that it’s not helpful for you at this time, be prepared to stop and do something else to help you for the time being. Then try again later.
- Encouraging writing at work – Find a group of people who can set aside the last ren minutes at the end of the day, for two or three days a week, to sit down and write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the issues that you’re dealing with. This writing needs to be personal and deeply relevant just for you, and for no one else to see. You might even put it through a paper shredder when you’re done.
Expressive writing in workplaces can be helpful during times of transition, such as changing job roles, changing locations, changing teams, changing strategy, or personal transitions such as preparing for, or returning from, maternity leave.
- Experimenting with alternatives – If you don’t like writing, you may be more comfortable talking into a tape recorder. Or you may find that it’s more powerful if you write with your non-dominant hand. You could also try finger writing by putting your finger in the air when you’re by yourself. This can work well if you want to ensure that there’s no trace of what you write anywhere on earth. Be prepared to experiment, to find what works for you.
Just be mindful that you don’t engage in expressive writing when you’re not ready for it. For example, in the midst of, or immediately after a major traumatic experience, or if you’re deeply depressed and not ready to process the emotions, give it some time before you try these exercises.
When might expressive writing help you heal from difficult emotions?