Stress plagues a large number of Americans. The 2010 APA Stress Survey reports that in general Americans view their stress levels as higher than is healthy. Although most recognize that healthy habits can decrease stress, people in the study experienced challenges in engaging in healthy behaviors.
For many, high stress levels contributed to unhealthy coping behaviors, such as over eating, not getting exercise and sleep problems.
Considering the impact of stress on both the mental and physical functioning of the majority of Americans, it seems important to understand how to reduce stress levels, once a stressor occurs.
Opening up, talking about negative experiences and expressing stress-related thoughts and feelings is central to many psychological theories. There is a growing body of research linking “opening up” to adjustment. Expressing stressful experiences is linked to improved physical and mental health, fewer reports of illness and increased positive emotions.
Stressors can challenge your basic (and often optimistic) beliefs about yourself and your world. If you can’t integrate a stressful experience into your view of the world, you will continue to have intrusive thoughts about the experience. Constraining expression of stressful thoughts and feelings can increase intrusive thoughts and prolong mental and physical reactions to stress. And continued intrusive thoughts seem to be an indication of unresolved stressful experiences and a lack of cognitive resolution.
Talking—to a therapist, loved one, supportive friend—aids in your examination, contemplation and evaluation of stressful experiences. It can help you interpret stressors in a meaningful way and better understand confusing aspects of your experience, ultimately reducing the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts connected to stressful experiences.
Disclosure isn’t always associated with positive adjustment. Who you talk to and the response of that person to your disclosures about your stressful experiences is important. Talking in a supportive social context will tend to decrease stress and aid in making sense of stressful experiences. On the other hand, talking in unsupportive or critical social environments can actually increase distress.
Emotional support from friends and family, talk therapy and support groups can all facilitate the process of making sense of stressful experiences. However, sharing your thoughts and disclosing your experiences in an unsupportive environment dilute and may negate the positive effects of talking.
Lepore, Ragin and Jones. (2000). Talking Facilitates Cognitive–Emotional Processes of Adaptation to an Acute Stressor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1991). Emotional processing: Theory, research and clinical implications for anxiety disorders. In J. D. Safran & L. S. Greenberg (Eds.), Emotion, Psychotherapy & Change (pp. 21–49). New York: Guilford Press.
Lepore, S. J., & Helgeson, V. (1998). Social constraints moderate the relation between intrusive thoughts and mental health in prostate cancer survivors. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 17, 89–106.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Kiecolt-Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239–245.
Photo by Styro, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.