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 creativity today can boost wellbeing tomorrow

Creative pursuits such as knitting can boost your emotional wellbeing. (Copyright: Oleksii Rashevskyi)

Indulge in creative activities today, and you could well feel more joy, enthusiasm and uplift tomorrow. That’s according to research into the relationship between day-to-day creativity and wellbeing by New Zealand’s University of Utago.

Psychology researchers analysed the daily diaries of 658 university students, where they logged their experiences and emotional states over 13 days.

Patterns emerged showing that participants felt more enthusiastic and had higher “flourishing” in the days after they had been creative. Flourishing is a concept that determines overall wellbeing, happiness and potential for growth.

Lead researcher Dr Tamlin Conner said previous research had focused on how emotions can hamper or support creative activity. However, in this new study, rather than positive feelings predicting next-day creative activity, it was actually previous day’s creative activity that predicted the next day’s positive feelings and wellbeing.

Top creative activities for wellbeing include:

  • Songwriting.
  • Creative writing (poetry, short fiction).
  • Knitting and crochet.
  • Making new recipes.
  • Painting, drawing, and sketching.
  • Graphic and digital design.
  • Musical performance.

Dr Conner concluded: “This finding suggests a particular kind of upward spiral for wellbeing and creativity – engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in wellbeing the next day, and this increased wellbeing is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day. Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning.”

Time to get those knitting needles out…

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 reading for pleasure promotes wellbeing

World Book Day

World Book Day 2016: celebrating everything good about reading

If you like reading a good book for pleasure then you’ll know all about the joy and wellbeing that brings – as celebrated by World Book Day every year. Now research is backing up the benefits of reading for pleasure, and promoting the power of books to inspire, calm us down, and empower us to make positive changes in our lives.

The Reading Agency has recently produced two studies showing the “remarkable and untold benefits of reading on our everyday lives”. The first study, Galaxy Quick Reads: The Untold Power of the Book, produced in partnership with Josie Billington at the University of Liverpool, shows that reading for pleasure can make us more empathic and encourage us to change our lives for the better. Half of the UK adults in the study said that reading could help make them more sympathetic to other people’s situations. Other results showing heightened wellbeing are:

  • 38% of people choose reading as their ultimate stress remedy.
  • 35% reach for a book for comfort when feeling down (compared with 31% who pour themselves a glass of wine, and 10% who run themselves a bath).
  • 41% say reading is a better cure for their worries than a night out with friends.
  • 27% feel empowered to make major life changes, such as end a bad relationship or search for a new job.
  • 20% feel more motivated to look after their health after reading a good book.
  • 17% say books inspired them to stay calm during a disagreement (compared with 5% of people who never read).

Interestingly, the research showed that readers who prefer characters who demonstrated that it’s OK to be flawed – and drew comfort from that. So, 23% prefer to read about someone who is makes mistakes, or someone who is funny (20%), more than a character who is brave (19%), loyal (17%), or kind (11%). However, it was more than a third (35%) of respondents who claimed they would love to read more but were distracted by their phones or the TV.

The second study, The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, in conjunction with BOP Consulting, and funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation shows more evidence that reading for pleasure can reduce symptoms of depression, lower the risk of dementia, improve relationships, and generally boost wellbeing.

Commenting on the findings, author and president of the Society of Authors, Phillip Pullman, said: “I agree whole-heartedly with what this report is saying about the importance of reading for pleasure. The writer Samuel Johnson apparently didn’t say this, but someone did, and it remains true: ‘The true aim of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it’.”

Enhance your writing skills by typing more slowly, say psychologists

davanti typewriter

Slow down typing to enhance your writing skills (pic courtesy of Just2shutter/freedigitalphotos.net)

Typing too fast can “impair the writing process”, while typing more slowly gives you more chance to think of a better word rather than settling for the first one that comes to mind. That’s the conclusion of a study by psychologists at Canada’s University of Waterloo.

The study involved asking participants to type essays using two hands or with only one hand. Analysing the results afterwards, the psychologists found that people used more sophisticated vocabulary when only using one hand because they had more time to search for the right word.

“Typing can be too fluent or too fast, and can actually impair the writing process,” said Srdan Medimorec, lead author the study. “It seems that what we write is a product of the interactions between our thoughts and the tools we use to express them.” So, possibly a case of more haste less speed when it comes to getting our point down on the page.

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…)

Write at twilight to keep a stronger hold on your memories

You'll have easier access to your memories if you record them in a journal in the evening (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/blackzheep)

You’ll have easier access to your memories if you record them in a journal in the evening (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/blackzheep)

Do you like to write your diary in the evening, reflecting on the day’s events, and capturing your thoughts and feelings about what’s happened to you? Or are you into morning journaling, wanting to share your thoughts with the page before you go about your day? Well, a study shows that people who write down autobiographical memories at night are more likely to remember them a month down the line than people who scribble down their life events when they wake up.

A diary after dinner: how the time of event recording influences later accessibility of diary events is a piece of research, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, that looks at the best time of day for recording events to enable them to be remembered at a later time. “Improvements in long-term accessibility” of memories recorded in a diary were greater at night than in the morning. “Participants [in the study] who recorded their memories in the evening before sleep had best memory performance,” according to the research findings. The study explained this as memories becoming more consolidated during sleep, whereas other interference and distractions during the day could affect this process for people who journal in the mornings.

In conclusion, I’m reminded of this quote by Norbet Platt: “The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought. This in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.” So putting pen to paper at night helps embed those thoughts even more deeply.