Want to regulate your emotions? Try bringing them to life, says study

Making your emotion into a character or person can help you detach from the emotion. (pic credit :Andrii Shevchuk)

I often recommend watching the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out to people who feel overcome by their emotions or have trouble regulating them. The movie largely takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old girl who moves cities with her parents. She experiences a range of emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – that are depicted as characters. Joy was originally in the driving seat when the girl was born, but other characters/emotions take over at different stages of the story – with comic and dramatic effect.

Story aside, I regard Inside Out as a helpful metaphor for mental health. It shows that we can experience a range of emotions without having to become any of them. It also shows that we can have a relationship with all of our emotions, and it’s not necessary for us to identify with any one in particular. You can change your language to say that you’re having an angry moment (when Anger is in the driving seat, for example) rather than saying that you’re an angry person. That can feel liberating.

A new study takes this one step further and suggests that the act of making your emotions into a character or person, just as Inside Out did, can help you regulate and detach from the emotions (especially the negative ones). Researchers at the University of Texas Austin found that ‘anthropomorphic thinking’ – which means bringing an emotion to life, or thinking of an emotion as a person – can help you regulate that emotion.

They tested out anthropomorphic thinking by asking survey participants to write about a time when they felt very sad, with one group asked to bring sadness into life as if it were a person. They were then asked to rate their levels of sadness on a scale of one to seven. Findings showed lower levels of sadness the group that wrote about the emotion as a person. The effects were heightened if the emotion-as-a-person was perceived to be a completely separate, independent person.

The researchers said: “Based on research on emotion regulation and the psychological process of detachment, we show that individuals instructed to anthropomorphise sadness (i.e., think of sadness as a person) report less experienced sadness afterwards. We argue that this reduction of emotion occurs because anthropomorphic thinking increases the perceived distance between the self and the anthropomorphised emotion, thereby creating a feeling of detachment.”

So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by an emotion, try picking up a pen and writing a character sketch of this emotion to help you detach from it. But maybe stick to negative emotions: the strategy works in the same way for happy ones, too. So, if Joy is in your driving seat today, you may want to keep her close and let her be.

The research article When Sadness Comes Alive, Will It be Less Painful? The Effects of Anthropomorphic Thinking on Sadness Regulation and Consumption is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

A summary of the research is published in Science Daily.

How writing a poem can make you feel better

davanti counselling rhyme and resilience

Writing down your emotions can be a route to healing. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/surasakiStock)

Today is World Poetry Day, set up by UNESCO to “recognise the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind”. You don’t have to be a poet to write a poem. You can just sit down and let fragments of thought and feeling tumble onto the page. Writing a poem is a unique way of connecting to feeling, and can boost your wellbeing. Research has shown that the act of writing about emotional experiences has physiological and psychological benefits. Here’s how writing a poem can help you feel better:

  • Giving emotions to the page can release you from them. The page can hold the feeling so you don’t have to.
  • The structure and discipline of poetry can offer containment for overwhelming emotions.
  • Putting your feelings onto paper or screen is like having your own personal therapist whenever you need to be heard and understood.
  • Writing about your experience can help make meaning from chaos.
  • Writing can help you understand and reconstruct the part of you that’s been hurt, shamed, stressed or depressed.
  • A metaphor can work with difficult feelings without re-traumatising.
  • If you feel stuck, write about your stuckness to release the energy.
  • Writing things down helps you dis-identify from your emotions: you can HAVE emotions but don’t need to BE them.
  • Having a piece of writing to look back on reminds you of the distance you’ve travelled between now and when the pain was experienced.

Happy World Poetry Day!

Related articles:

How to express your true feelings in words on World Poetry Day

How to use a poem to contain overwhelming emotions

How to use a poem to contain overwhelming emotions

Writing a structured poem can help contain overwhelming emotions.

Writing a structured poem can help emotions feel more contained.

Writing things down, especially negative thoughts, feelings and emotions, can make us feel better. Just picking up a pen and writing what comes to mind can be incredibly cathartic and therapeutic, and can help you put into words what you really feel.

To get into the spirit of National Poetry Day, how about attempting to express your feelings in a poem? The structure and discipline of poetry can offer containment to difficult or overwhelming emotion, and can provide a tremendous feeling of release and satisfaction. It can help provide meaning on the page from the chaos in your mind.

There is a poem structure called the acrostic poem. Here’s how to make it work for you:

  • Identify an emotion you’re feeling, or have felt.
  • Pick one word that sums up that emotion.
  • Write the letters of that word vertically down a page of A4 paper.
  • Allow all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories and images you associate with that emotion to spill onto a separate page.
  • Place some of those words and phrases next to the letters of your emotion.
  • Fill in the other letters with phrases that fit your emotion, as you’re feeling it right now.

Here’s an example, with the emotion ANXIETY:

ANXIETY

And here I am again.

No closer to the reassurance I need:

X-raying all my closest

Interactions to see if they can

Ever be any better.

Truly tired of being inside my head.

Yearning for some peace instead.

The poem will help to ‘ground’ the emotion you’re feeling through the structured engagement with the initial letters of the word. Writing about an emotion in this way names it, captures it, and takes it power away.

Seven ways the ‘unsent letter’ can channel your anger

Write down your angry thoughts (but don't send them) to help process your feelings (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/anankkml)

Write down your angry thoughts (but don’t send them) to help process your feelings (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/anankkml)

Full of rage at someone but not sure you can tell them? Feeling hurt and let down by a partner but fearful of telling them straight? Wish you could tell a parent exactly how they made you feel? I frequently recommend the ‘unsent letter’ as a way of expressing your feelings about or towards someone who’s made you mad, bad or sad.

The unsent letter is a form of writing therapy that encourages you to address a letter to someone you don’t feel you can talk directly to – perhaps a former lover, a friend you’ve fallen out with, or perhaps someone who has died. It’s a way of putting into words a deeply held thought or feeling that has somehow been damaging you in some way, or holding you back. The idea is that you write about your feelings openly – so they’re ‘out there’ – but you don’t have to send the letter. The point is to articulate and process your feelings rather then openly hurt someone else by sending the letter.

So you can rage about a vexatious issue connected to a significant person in your life, and it’s you who ends up feeling better. The unsent letter can be written by hand, or typed as an email – whichever you prefer. Just don’t press send!

Here are seven ways the unsent letter can help to channel your anger… (more…)

Suffering from writer’s block? Try writing about the block to shift it

Writing about your writer's block can help shift the block and get to the point.

Writing about your writer’s block can help shift the block and get to the point.

I always love it when writers share their tips on how they overcome writer’s block – especially when they joke that other professions (eg plumbers, dentists etc) don’t suffer blocks. They just rock up and get on with their jobs rather than waiting for the muse to strike.

In a recent Shortlist article with 20 tips from writers on writer’s block, writers recommend discipline, just getting on with it, imagining you’re writing for a friend or family member, and writing a first draft knowing that no one will see it.

The tip I’ve found from experience that can work extremely well comes from Charles Bukowski, who says:  (more…)

Why not let World Book Day inspire you to write…?

World Book Day 2015World Book Day is that time of year when children are encourage to talk in rhyme, read their favourite books, visit libraries, engage with their favourite authors, and dress up as a book hero or villain.

But why let World Book Day be all about the kids? Awareness Days mark something to be celebrated, and sometimes one can capture our souls more than others. World Book Day, for me, is about optimism and adventure and creativity and imagination. It’s about remembering something wonderful about our past, and possibly creating something for our future. World Book Day always encourages me to write. Something. In honour of all the words and pages and books that have gone before me, that have inspired me, and have held me when nothing else could.

I work with people who would love to have the freedom to write and yet feel blocked, stuck, stupid, unworthy. All core beliefs that leave them in non-writing. World Book Day can be just the excuse you need to get your pen out and scribble on a scrap piece of paper, or your poshest notebook. Whatever needs to emerge will emerge. Just as I rocked up to write a blog post about writing and World Book Day without a plan or an outcome. Just in honour of a feeling.

Related post: Why reading a good book can be therapeutic (and not just on World Book Day)

Why reading a good book can be therapeutic (and not just on World Book Day)

A year on from writing this post, I still feel the magic and beauty of books, and the emotional support they can offer us in so many ways. So, World Book Day is always a day to celebrate.

davanti counselling

worldbookdayya Today is World Book Day : a global reason to celebrate all that’s good about books and reading. The point of World Book Day is to get kids “exploring the pleasure of books”, but for adults it’s also an excuse to indulge in the curiosity and escapism a good book can provide. (As if you need an excuse!)

But reading isn’t just about entertainment or killing time on a commute. Studies have shown that bibliotherapy (a form of psychotherapy using reading materials) can help to reduce people’s negative thoughts and mild depressive symptoms.

Here are 10 ways reading can have a therapeutic effect:

  1. Reading helps you make sense of your world and your place in it. There’s a book somewhere that will have a story or situation that is similar to yours, and that you can identify with.
  2. Metaphors can make issues easier to come to terms with – especially…

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