'You know your problem, you keep it all in'
So sang The Beautiful South in 1989, and according to Dr Mark Wetherell and colleagues at this Psychobiology Section symposium, convened by Michael Smith (Northumbria University), they had a point. This diverse session explored a variety of methods to assess emotional expressiveness interventions.
Some of the talks were about therapeutic writing, which involves writing down your deepest thoughts and feelings about emotional issues, a method which has been associated with improved mental and physical health. Dr Catherine Loveday from University of Westminster recruited students who were facing the stress of an upcoming presentation. She asked half to write about how stressful this event would be and half to write about brushing their teeth. Whilst all participants experienced an increase in stress in the run up to the presentation, the drop in stress afterwards was related to the emotional content of their writing. In other words, writing about stress may help you recover from it.
Dr Wetherell’s study aimed to help caregivers; a group of people who are under a lot of stress and have very little time, to incorporate this practice. While benefits have been shown to a variety of population groups within the lab, Wetherell wanted to know if caregivers could benefit from writing interventions within their own homes. Rather than writing about their ongoing stresses, caregivers were asked to write about finding the positives in adversity, as this has been shown to enable people to seek our social interactions and support. Further challenges within this group are that their everyday lives are extremely hard, and so it was important to think carefully about a control writing intervention. To overcome this, participants were asked to write about a neutral landscape. Study findings suggested that this intervention could bring out changes in wellbeing though the expression of positive emotions, and it was feasible to undertake these tasks within the home. However, not all carers were able to engage with the task, and some even swore at the researchers, incredulous at the request.
These individuals may have been better participants for Dr Richard Stephen’s study on the effects of swearing on strength and power performance. ‘Lalochezia’ is a term used to describe the use of foul language to relieve pain. Stephens, from Keele University, has conducted previous studies that have demonstrated that participants who swear out loud whilst their hands are immersed in ice cold water are able to withstand the pain for longer. He has now extended this work and found that participants who swore increased their pedalling power and exerted more grip force. But why does this occur and should we use swearing more strategically in our daily lives? Stephens suggests that swearing could raise levels of aggression, leading to an increased ability to withstand pain. It is also linked to emotion and letting off stream. Another explanation could be that swearing is linked to disinhibition, such that we are less concerned with possible embarrassment associated with over exertion or injury. So much so, we let down our guard and focus more on the task at hand, leading to increased performance.
Professor Daryl O’Connor from the University of Leeds also contributed to the symposium, describing important links between perseverative cognition and health behaviours. Perseverative cognition is a term to describe thinking about negative past or future events and includes rumination and worry, which are linked to stress. In a systematic review O’Connor found that perseverative cognition was associated with increases in health risk behaviours such as substance use, alcohol, unhealthy eating and smoking. He pointed out that most of the 19 included studies did not specifically set out to explore health behaviours, and so this might be an important area to explore further within the literature. High levels of rumination and worry might impede people’s ability to engage in emotional expression in general, and could mediate the effect of emotional expressiveness interventions.
Overall, the message from this symposium is that letting off steam and expressing our emotions is important for wellbeing. So perhaps next time you are facing a challenging event, you could put this to the test and write about the stress you’ll feel, or failing that, pick your favourite swear word and let it all out.
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