- Today's social unrest often triggers strong negative emotions such as sadness, fear, guilt, hopelessness, despair, irritation, and anger.
- If unexpressed, negative emotions can cause depression and maladaptive behaviours.
- Written emotional disclosure can be an effective way to process strong negative emotions and past trauma.
We are living in times of unprecedented social unrest (e.g., the pandemic, natural disasters, war, and other human-made acts of violence), which are affecting everyone. This unrest can cause trauma, and often translates into unpleasant and strong negative emotional reactions, which can be difficult to express constructively and effectively—namely, sadness, fear, guilt, hopelessness, despair, irritation, and anger.
Anger, for example, is one of the most challenging emotions to express constructively. Among other reasons, this is because it’s often considered to be a "negative" or "dangerous" emotion. This, however, is not the case if it is expressed adaptively. Anger has a purpose and manifests for a good reason. It is an unpleasant emotion that informs us about something we need to pay attention to—for example, that we feel hurt, we’re in danger or in a threatening situation, our rights have been violated, or we have been disrespected. Therefore, anger is telling us that we need to put some boundaries in place to make us feel safe, to protect ourselves.
Blocking, ignoring, or misreading strong emotions like anger precludes us from experiencing optimal mental health and psychological well-being, making smart life choices, forming and enjoying intimate relationships, and living a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Symptoms of Unacknowledged Anger
Unacknowledged and unexpressed anger usually turns into internal maladaptive emotions and behaviours. Inwardly turned anger can lead to excessive self-criticism, self-pity, self-loathing, low self-esteem, powerlessness, negativity, and even headaches and depression. Outwardly turned anger can lead to maladaptive behaviours such as blaming, criticising, lashing out, or snapping at others, even in response to minor setbacks; finding it difficult to hold your temper; irritability; passive aggression (being stubborn, cynical, hostile, or disagreeable); rumination; procrastination; and/or chronic complaining. All of this constitutes nonadaptive expression of anger.
To prevent these responses from happening, anger needs to be identified, processed, and expressed constructively and effectively. As a powerful emotion, anger can be a source of positive energy and motivation that can thrust you forward, if expressed adaptively.
There are many ways to express adaptive anger, such as identifying and managing triggers, reframing situations, self-compassion, breathing exercises, exercising, or practicing meditation and yoga. Below, I introduce a particular technique, that, like most techniques, doesn’t necessarily work for everybody, in all situations, all the time, but can be very effective for most people to deal with traumatic life events and a wider range of psychological issues, including the following:
- Anger and deep-seated resentment
- Depression and major depressive disorder
- Grief and prolonged grief disorder
- Sadness, nostalgia, and negative mood
- Dysphoria (a state of unease or dissatisfaction often accompanied by depression, anxiety, or agitation)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder
Written Emotional Disclosure
Developed by James Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, written emotional disclosure, also known as purge emotional writing or expressive writing or writing therapy, is a form of psychotherapy in which you write about your most traumatic or distressing experiences.
What to Write About?
Among other things, you can write about the following:
- Distressful and traumatic experiences
- Something that you are dreaming about
- Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much
- Something that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way
- Something that you have been avoiding for days, weeks, or years
- Negative events or experiences (e.g., a relationship breakup or death of a loved one)
- Your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life
- Find a time and quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Ideally, choose a time at the end of your workday or before you go to bed.
- Commit to write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least four or five consecutive days.
- Use handwriting or type in your computer. (If you cannot write, you can also talk into a recording device.)
- Once you begin, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or syntax—this is not an essay, test, or exam.
- Don’t worry about the content either, as you will never show or send this letter or piece of writing to anyone. The writing is for you and for you only. Its purpose is for you to be completely honest with yourself. Once you have finished the writing, you can burn it, throw it away, or keep it— it’s entirely up to you. Some people keep their samples and edit them; so, they gradually change their writing from day to day. Others simply keep them and go back over and over again to see how they have changed.
- If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written, or you can write about something different each day. It is entirely up to you.
Completely let go and explore your feelings and thoughts. You might link this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career.
While you may not have had any traumatic experiences, all of us have experienced a major conflict or stressors in our lives. You can write about these as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts.
Caveat: Occasionally, some people report feeling somewhat sad or depressed after writing. Like when we see a sad film, this usually goes away in a couple of hours. However, if you find that you are getting extremely upset about a topic, simply stop writing or change topics.
Pennebaker, J. W. (2004). Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval. New Harbinger Publications.
Radcliffe, A. M., Lumley, M. A., Kendall, J., Stevenson, J. K., & Beltran, J. (2007). Written emotional disclosure: Testing whether social disclosure matters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(3), 362-384. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2007.26.3.362
Riddle, J. P., Smith, H. E., & Jones, C. J. (2016). Does written emotional disclosure improve the psychological and physical health of caregivers? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 80, 23-32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2016.03.004