The paradox of talking about difficult emotions

You might think that talking about your difficult emotions — agitation, boredom, anger, nervousness, etc. — would worsen your mood. But a recent study suggests the opposite.

The study, published in Nature and conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Social Neuroscience Lab, looked at 212 participants who did a “daily Dyad,” a daily structured one-on-one conversation with a partner (Dyad simply means “two,” as in two people). In this conversation each partner took turns speaking about two experiences for just 2.5 minutes each: first, an experience of a difficult emotion in the last 24 hours, then second, an experience of gratitude in the last 24 hours. In both cases, the speaker’s partner only listened, not commenting or giving advice.

After each of these brief peer-to-peer meetings, researchers used a standard self-report measure to assess participants’ mood and quality of thoughts, for example, did participants describe their thoughts as “positive” or “negative”, or related more to “self” or “other”?.

Here’s what they found: participants reported a large and statistically significant improvement to their mood after the conversation. Since one of the prompts was to talk about a difficult emotional experience, this may be counterintuitive. Shouldn’t we feel worse revisiting unpleasant experiences we had in the past day?

As it turns out, not necessarily. In fact under the right conditions, reflecting on and sharing about difficult emotional experiences can be a large positive boost to our mood, resilience, and well-being. Here are a few clues from the research:

1. First, in this conversation, participants reflected on difficult emotions and gratitude in the past day. Considering what we’re grateful for can lessen stress and put our difficulties in a bigger perspective: yes I had a difficult situation today, and, I also have things to be grateful for.

2. Second, it helps to share difficult experiences in a context where we trust that the other person is there first-and-foremost to listen empathetically. We’ve all experienced others not really listening when we try to share, or giving unwanted advice, or trying to “fix” our problems in a way which doesn’t really help. In this study participants didn’t give each other any advice or commentary: they just listened to each other. Even the simple act of expressing ourselves and being heard can have a healthy effect.

3. Third, sharing about difficult experiences with others can build human-to-human connection, which according to some research is the single greatest factor in long-term health & well-being. When we share about our difficult experiences, and hear someone else share about theirs, we remember that we’re not alone. We feel closer to others, and regain a sense of common humanity. In a related study on a similar practice, Dyad participants reported a strong feeling of social closeness with their partners, which grew each day after their conversation.

In the bigger picture of mental health and social connection, there’s one more aspect of this study which offers hope: participants shared their difficult emotional experiences not with a professional therapist or coach, but a peer, another person just like them. The study participants were teachers, bus drivers, homemakers, office workers, retail clerks, and so on.

There are times when professional support and counseling is essential, especially in cases of extreme psychological distress. At the same time, the study highlights how much we as ordinary people can support each other by simply listening and connecting on a human level.

Photo Credit: Gregg Trueman