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Why Talking About Our Problems Makes Us Feel Better

Research can explain why expressing pain can be so therapeutic.

Does talking to a friend about your problems make you feel better? If so, you’re not alone. And now research in psychology and neuroscience tells us why.

Talking about our problems and verbalizing our negative feelings to friends has been a source of relief for centuries. In different forms of psychotherapy, from psychoanalysis to existential and cognitive-behavioral approaches, the vital component is the bond of trust between client and therapist that supports clients’ self-disclosure, the process of sharing their problems, and emotional pain. Studies have shown that simply talking about our problems and sharing our negative emotions with someone we trust can be profoundly healing—reducing stress, strengthening our immune system, and reducing physical and emotional distress (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988).

Writing about our problems is another way we can release emotional pain and gain greater perspective. Psychologist James Pennebaker (1997) has found that writing about our emotional experiences improves our mental and physical health. The theory is that keeping painful secrets is stressful, increasing the risk of illness, and that self-disclosure, whether spoken or written, relieves the long-term stress of inhibition, leading to better health (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988).

We can also experience a healing effect with simple mindfulness practice—consciously noting and labeling our emotions (“sad,” “anxious,” “confused”). By paying attention and naming these feelings, we can watch them dissipate, fading from our minds as we become more mindful, centered, and at peace (Lieberman et al, 2007).

Revealing why verbalizing helps heal our emotional pain, neuroscience studies by Lieberman et. al. (2007) and Vago and Silbersweig (2012) have found that labeling our feelings reduces activation in the amygdala, our brain’s alarm system that triggers the fight-or-flight reaction. When we give words to our emotions, we move away from limbic reactivity by activating those parts of the brain that deal with language and meaning in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (Lieberman et al, 2007). We become less reactive and more mindfully aware.

So the next time you’re feeling down, instead of being swept along by a flood of negative emotions or chronically stressed by keeping them bottled up, you might try mindfully labeling them, writing about them, or sharing them with a therapist or trusted friend.

This post is for educational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.


Photo. Jake Stimpson, Women Talking in Bucharest.

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M.J., Tom, S. M., Pfeiffer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-427.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162-166.

Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239-245.

Vago, D. R. & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): A framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. doi: 10.3389/fnhuum.2012.00296.

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