+ Upset? Write It and Calm Down

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In an article by Mark Henderson in TimesOnline, we learn that a research team led by Matthew Lieberman of UCLA  has found that one of the main motivations for writing and verbal expression — from keeping a diary to writing poetry — may be that it brings peace of mind and relieves stress.

It may change the way the brain deals with negative emotions.

Says Dr Lieberman

I think that the benefits of putting feelings into words is one of the indirect motivations for many of the words that get written.  When people sit down to write they may not know exactly why, but there seems to be this benefit.

The research could also be medically useful, as it suggests that writing therapy could help people suffering from psychological conditions such as social anxiety disorder, phobias or post-traumatic stress.

We do think it has clinical implications.  We’ve done some work looking at complementing an exposure therapy, for people who are high in spider fear.  If you have people actually expressing their negative responses in words while they’re being exposed, you see greater attenuation over time.

 The brain has a catharsis center in a region called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, lying next to the right temple.  When it’s activated, activity in the amygdala is supressed.  (The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of the brain’s deep-lying limbic system, which processes negative emotions such as fear.)

Using fMRI scans, brain imaging has shown that the act of writing about distressing experiences, or even thinking about expressing them in words, can activate the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

According to Lieberman

The question I get interested in is why it seems to help people emotionally when they put feelings into words, whether it’s therapy, writing a diary or journal, or poetry.  Our hyposthesis is this is an unintentional form of emotion regulation.

The way we’ve approached this is by looking at the brain, because if you ask people, they don’t think that putting feelings into words serves much of a regulatory function.  But when you look at the brain it looks a whole lot like emotion regulation is going on when people put emotions into words.

 The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex appears to become activated even if a person isn’t trying to activate it.  It still has regulatory consequences.

The more the area is activated, the less activity you see in limbic regions that are involved in emotional processing.  There is less activity in the amygdala than would otherwise be seen when an individual is experiencing stress.

According to Lieberman, “The more prefrontal activation you see, the less the amygdala responds.”

Researchers still intend to conduct experiments on people who keep diaries.  Lieberman feels diaries probably serve as a form of daily regulation for certain individuals.

He cautions that the benefits of  keeping diaries probably depends on the way in which a person writes about the feelings.  “Our suspicion is that it’s probably more effective to the extent you use more abstract language, rather than truly vivid emotional language that might be reactivating the negative experience.”

The researchers are also working with a psychologist to look at social anxiety disorder, to see if cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance-based therapy leads to changes in which they recruit this regulatory region when they respond to threatening situations.

sole source: Mark Henderson’s article in TimesOnline on 2/15/09.  www.timesonline.co.uk

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