Blog Short #136: Why Talking About Your Problems is a Good Thing
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Talking about your problems and sharing your negative feelings with someone is good for you.
Let’s start with why, and then I’ll give you the science behind it.
The “why” is that it can:
- Reduce stress
- Lower anxiety and worry
- Relieve isolation
- Facilitate healing from trauma
- Strengthen the immune system
- Reduce emotional pain
That’s not a complete list, but it covers some of the most significant effects.
Now for the science.
When you express your thoughts and feelings to someone who’s open to hearing them, several processes are activated that join you and the listener together to create understanding and connection.
1. Mirror Neurons
The first process involves mirror neurons, associated with the brain’s ability to feel what the other person feels.
Neurons are nerve cells that send messages throughout the body. A mirror neuron is unique because it fires when you act and also when someone else acts.
For example, when you throw a ball up in the air, my mirror neurons fire the same as yours, as though I also threw that ball in the air, even though I didn’t. I just watched you do it.
So when you’re talking to me and telling me how you feel or what you’re experiencing, I can share those feelings. By hearing your words, my brain can grasp what they mean on an experiential level. You sense this, which makes you feel less isolated with your problems and emotions.
2. Neural Coupling
The second mechanism that facilitates connecting is called neural coupling. If you’re talking to someone who seems to grasp what you’re saying and feeling, you feel in sync. You click with each other. This feeling is rooted in an actual alignment of the two brains neurologically. As explained by Katherine Hobson (2018), it works like this:
A speaker’s brain waves generate a sound wave — speech — that in turn influences the brain responses in the listener and brings them into alignment with her own.
Hobson likens it to dancing with a partner: “Neither person is doing exactly what the other is, but the moves are complementary.” And, the more in sync you are, the stronger the felt connection.
3. The Container and the Contained
This third mechanism is a psychological concept called “the container and the contained.” It means that when you express your feelings to me, I take them in and hold them for you so you get some emotional space and can begin to sort them out.
This is a big part of what happens in psychotherapy. As you unfold your story to the therapist, there’s a transfer of your distress, and she contains it for you as you work it through. It relieves your feeling of carrying the burden alone.
Now let’s look at how talking helps you deal with emotional pain and trauma.
Reducing Emotional Pain and Gaining Insight
Talking involves labeling your emotions with words, which has the effect of organizing and creating a structure for your thoughts and feelings. You effectively begin to reduce your emotional reactivity and think analytically about what’s going on.
The more you tell your story or narrative of a traumatic event, the more you move through the various stages of healing until you eventually find a place for it that no longer plagues you.
It’s like washing a piece of dark cloth over and over in hot water and soap until eventually it’s a pale grey. The shadow is still there, but it’s considerably diluted and no longer has the impact it once had. You can fold the cloth and put it in your dresser drawer. It remains, but it’s no longer within view.
Talking out your problems also has physiological benefits. It’s been shown to reduce visits to the doctor and increase overall immune response. We carry our stress in our bodies, and over time it can interrupt immune activity and increase health issues such as heart disease, inflammation, immune disorders, skin eruptions, sleep cycles, and mood disturbances.
Now let’s address who you should talk to.
How do I choose the listener?
Can you talk to just anyone when sharing your problems or distress? Of course not. Here are the qualities you need in someone to get the effects outlined above.
Above all, choose someone who can understand how you feel and is open to hearing it. The best is someone you can relate to and whose emotional profile is similar to yours. Choose a friend, family member, or professional therapist with whom you feel comfortable.
As an aside, not every therapist is right for every person. Therapists are people with personalities and backgrounds; sometimes you match up, and sometimes not. Generally, a good therapist understands your feelings without judgment and listens much more than they talk.
2. Have the energy and time available.
Does this person have the time and energy to listen? Just ask, and be mindful of how much time you think is needed. You might need to choose a specific time and get their agreement before starting. Maybe you want to do it over coffee, but make sure you set a limit for yourself so the other person doesn’t feel stuck or trapped.
3. Choose someone who isn’t going to take over the conversation.
You could have a great friend who’s empathetic, has a similar emotional disposition, and has the time and energy for you, but can’t listen without inserting her biases and ideas.
If you want to talk about a break-up with your partner but know she’ll take over the conversation and scorch your ex because she thinks that’ll help you, don’t choose her. That doesn’t help. You’re looking for someone who can listen and let you roll it out without interruption or trying to fix things.
When Talking is Not So Good
Everyone needs to vent sometimes, and it’s all right to do that to get something off your chest. You may even need a few rounds to do the job.
However, extended ranting is unhealthy because it increases your level of anger without resolving anything. It keeps you stuck.
Chronic venting is like continually revving your motor and never moving the car forward.
It’s also not fair to the listener. Who wants to listen to someone take off on the same rant over and over? It’s like being stuck in a deep ditch with no foreseeable way of getting out.
If you need to vent, time yourself. Keep it short. Best is to ask the listener, “Do you mind if I vent for a moment? I promise not more than 5 or 10 minutes. I just need to get this out so I can think about what to do about it.” Most people are okay with that.
The purpose of venting should be to move you forward so that you can work with whatever’s holding you up and find a way to either resolve it or let it go.
Venting should not be the main show. It’s a lead-in to a solution, not the solution itself.
Last question: Isn’t talking to someone burdening them?
It depends on the relationship and the persons involved. In most close relationships, there’s an unspoken understanding: You talk when you have an issue, and I’ll do the same. You take turns and welcome listening to each other. This is true of good friends, romantic partners, and family members.
If you have serious problems that require more, seek out a therapist so that you get the help you need and don’t overburden the relationship. Chronic anxiety, depression, or other mood disturbances might require some therapy, or in some cases, medication. That’s up to you, but if you feel you’re burdening someone, ask them about it directly, and you can decide together how to approach that.
Next week we’ll begin a 2-part series on handling stress.
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,
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