In mental health care, we talk about “being in the moment” to help alleviate anxiety. But what if you’re still haunted by your past? If you have ever experienced a traumatic event – to whatever degree has affected you – you know that it can be difficult to work through these emotional hits. Whether it be from abuse, a confrontational or difficult relationship, a falling out with someone, upbringing by an emotionally detached parent etc., these emotional scars don’t heal overnight, and they often lead to an unrelenting feeling of resentment or anger.
Reaction Conditions Mental Health
What makes a difference in our mental health and well-being is how we react to the thought or mention of these events and people. Are you able to discuss them with ease? Do you break down in tears at the mention of someone’s name? Are you harbouring anger and resentment toward someone or something that has happened to you? These emotions, which are often better expressed than bottled up, can also have a negative effect on our well-being if left “untreated” or unrecognized.
Examine the Negative Emotional Reaction
When we experience a current negative emotional reaction to a past memory, or to the mention of a person or event from our life, it’s an indication that we haven’t finished working through our issues. There are so many different ways to process the thoughts and feelings associated with people and events from our past. This is largely done through self-reflection and self-narration. Overcoming this emotional strain is not a short process, and isn’t helped by avoiding the situation.
Don’t Fight the Flow
Long standing anger and resentment, as well as worry, can have some fairly serious implications for your health. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), anger and resentment directly affect the Liver, the TCM organ system responsible for storing Blood and ensuring smooth flow of Qi around the body1. This smooth flow of Liver-Qi aids in digestion, and influences menstruation. Additionally, it ensures a “smooth flow of our emotional life”. When this flow is impaired, the emotional life is characterized by depression, frustration, irritability and general emotional tension1. Without proper Blood storage and flow by the Liver, we find it can also affect the Heart, the TCM organ that opens into the Mind, affecting mood, anxiety, memory, and sleep.
Many studies have shown that narrative writing is linked to improved mental and physical health2. In a similar way that goal-setting and “future-authoring” has been shown to improve productivity and performance, careful writing regarding past trauma has been used to promote cognitive processing of these emotional events.2
Individuals assigned to write about stressful life events showed greater long-term mental health, improved immune function and fewer visits to doctor’s offices3,4. Long-term benefits of expressive writing also include reduced absenteeism from work, quicker re-employment after job loss, and higher students’ grade point average.5
Addressing Avoidance Before an Outburst Does it for You
In contrast, avoidance behaviour and bottling things up can have negative impacts on health, including lower self-regulation (more likely to “burst” or explode with emotion later on), and higher stress levels which can lead to anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
Write it Out
Writing about stressful events in your life forces you to face that event head-on. It also can help with your memory, allowing you to produce organized and structured memories.3,4
How it Works
How does emotional writing work? Many of us are familiar with the act of writing a letter but without actually sending it. The act of writing the letter lets us express what we’re feeling but without having to experience confrontation. We can be as blunt, angry, and honest in that letter as we need to be, to get our feelings out. However, this type of venting isn’t quite the same as expressive writing. Writing about the emotions associated with a traumatic event isn’t as beneficial as writing about both the event itself and the emotions we’re experiencing5.
Tripping the Trigger with Care
The idea is not to only trigger negative emotions, as this can lead to a spiraling of thoughts, leaving you even more angry and stressed, but to reflect on past experiences, recalling the event, and translating it into words5. With continued writing work, the idea is to confront this trauma, acknowledging the associated emotions, and over time, reduce the overall stress on the body. Often times this requires understanding the trauma and behaviours of others that are out of our control.
There are several ways to help start your writing. In order to begin to understand these traumatic events or a string of events from an individual or a group, I highly suggest seeking out a professional for help, or alternatively, looking into wellness and self-help books to help give you another perspective.
At the top of my list are:
- “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” by Lindsay C. Gibson Ph.D.
- “Adult Children of Alcoholics” by Janet G. Woititz Ph.D.
- “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown
- “When the Body Says No” by Gabor Mate MD.
- “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle
- Anything written by Melanie Beattie – a top favourite of mine is “Finding your Way Home: A Soul Survival Kit”. Others by Melanie Beattie include “Codependent No More” and “The Language of Letting Go”.
For additional writing tools, it’s worth looking into “Past Authoring” an online writing program designed by 3 professors (Ph.D) in the areas of psychology and behaviour. More information can be found at selfauthoring.com.
Studies suggest that writing exercises may be more successful when they are more structured or follow a regular commitment to writing, such as in the “Self Authoring” programs. But whether working in a clinical setting or in a self-help setting, Baikie et al5 suggest following a few simple rules for your writing:
1) Writing should be carried out in a private, personalized space, away from distractions
2) Write on 3-4 occasions, usually on consecutive days or weeks
3) Set aside 30 minutes: 20 for writing, and 10 minutes to sit and reflect, or to compose yourself afterward.
4) Write by hand or on a computer, however you are most comfortable.
5) As you write, really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future.
6) Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. The only rule is that once you begin writing, continue until time is up.
1. Maciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier, 2005. Print
2. Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 95(3): 274-281.
3. Peterson, J.B., and Mar, R. (2010) The benefits of writing. selfauthoring.com/WritingBenefits.pdf Accessed February 2017.
4. Pennebaker, J. W. (1997) Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162–166.
5. Baikie, K. A., and, Wilhelm, K. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. (2005) Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11:338-346.
Dr. Sarah King is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor, graduating from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in 2014. Prior to completing her medical studies, she attended Nipissing University where she received her Honors Bachelor of Science in Biology. Sarah has a passion for women’s health and is a birth doula in Durham and Toronto Region. She treats a wide variety of health conditions including menstrual disorders and hormone balancing, fertility, prenatal care, digestive concerns, skincare and mental health/anxiety. Outside the office Sarah is an avid runner with a love of the GTA’s best forest trails. She also continues to improve her yoga practice and teaches breath work as part of stress management counselling to her patients.