After my friend killed herself, I didn’t speak to anyone about it for months, not even my husband. He’d ask me about it, but I’d just shake my head no. I thought not talking about it, willfully pretending it had never happened, was helping me. It wasn’t. It was actually delaying my healing from it.
Everyone needs to handle grief in their own way, but I went through months of overwhelm that I could have avoided if I’d just tried to open up about it earlier rather than later.
Normally, if journaling/meditating isn’t working, I turn to a trusted friend or a therapist for help. But my feelings over my friend’s death felt too big to be able to express. I didn’t know how I could even begin to boil down the most gut-rending thing that had ever happened to me into measly little words.
The fact that my feelings felt too big to express is just one major reason why people may not talk about their feelings. The other one being that some people (men in particular) may have been socialized never to talk about their feelings.
Regardless, talking to others has major psychological benefits. Even if you can’t find the words just yet, the act of speaking to someone else about them can start the healing process.
Why does it help?
Your amygdala is the part of the brain that handles your fight or flight response, and its job is to make sure you survive. It responds to potential threats and then keeps that information in the event you might face this same threat again.
But that little lump in your brain isn’t always logical. If you are walking around Central Park and you hear a tiger roar behind you, whether the presence of that tiger might be rational or not, you are still going to jump.
Unfortunately, if you get stressed or otherwise emotionally upset, your amygdala may take over and override your more logical thinking.
Research from U.C.L.A. suggests that putting your feelings into words (“affect labeling”) can calm the response of your amygdala, even when you face things that previously upset you.
For example, someone who had been assaulted in a park might find that, over time, after talking through their experiences, they are able to go to a park once again without the same emotional reaction they previously had.
How can you get better at it?
There actually is an improper way to talk about your problems. If you tend to co-ruminate — repetitively sharing your negative experiences with others — you’re likely to make yourself more stressed, depressed, and anxious. This has been found in studies on working adults, young women, and college students.
To properly talk about your problems, these are some things you need to do:
Choose the right people.
We all have those people in our lives that we know often make things worse if we talk to them. They might ruminate with us, give us unnecessary advice, or say things that imply we just need to get over it or that we shouldn’t be feeling what we’re feeling.
Think about it: if you’re seriously unhappy with your job, you’re probably not going to feel any happier about your situation if you go talk to someone who hates their job as much as you do.
This is why it’s so important to choose the right people to speak to, the ones that make you feel better after you speak to them. You might also need more than one person to be able to reach out to. By having multiple people you can reach out to, you can make sure one person doesn’t get worn out.
Further, you can seek out the help of a therapist. Therapists are trained to help you in many ways that don’t just involve if you have a mental illness.
Choose the right time.
Everyone has things going on in their lives, so make sure you’re asking first, “Is now a good time?” They may not have the time and/or energy now, but they might later after they’ve gotten prepared. If you can’t wait, that’s understandable, but if you can, do make sure they can give you their full attention.
Give yourself a time limit.
We all need time to vent, but eventually we need to move on from that to some tangible plan of action. When we are just complaining over and over again, we’re not figuring anything out. We’re just reliving those same yucky feelings.
That’s why it can be good to give yourself a time limit. Maybe only complain for a certain length of time to a friend before you move on, or follow the advice of a smart friend of mine: “You can complain about something three times. After that, you better get into a solution.”
Not every problem will be able to be resolved, but you can, over time, work to improve how you feel about it.
Don’t forget to talk about the good.
When we get focused on only the bad in our lives, it becomes the only thing we can see, and that’s not good for us. Even if you have a problem going on in your life, don’t forget to share what good has been going on too. It can help your brain take a break from the awful and improve your relationships with your loved ones.
It took working closely for a couple of weeks with a therapist before I was able to begin to voice how I felt about the loss of my friend. The first time I talked about it, it felt like a dam had finally busted. I hadn’t realized how burdened I felt and how much lighter I would feel after talking about it. Over time, it became easier and today I’m able to discuss it without breaking down. That’s a gift. That’s growth.