Writing about emotional pain without being kind to yourself makes it worse and distraction is better, study finds

Distraction is a better way of ridding people of negative emotions, researchers say — though writing can work if people are kind to themselves

Writing about and brooding over painful emotional experiences could make them worse, according to new research that recommends people do so with “self-compassion”.

Distracting oneself from the experiences could be better than dwelling on them. But exploring them with “self-compassion” — “self-kindness, a sense of common humanity and mindfulness” — is the best way of dealing with negative emotions, according to the research.

To test the best way of dealing with emotions, a group of students were made unhappy by listening to Prokofiev’s ‘Under the Mongolian Yoke’ at half-speed and were instructed to read 24 depressing statements, write the authors of a new paper by Natasaha Odou and Jay Brinker published in the journal ‘Self and Identity’.

After that, half of the students were told to write about their feelings with self-compassion, being objective and non-judgmental. The rest were told to explore their feelings in the same way, but with none of the instructions about self-compassion.

The latter group said that they felt worse about the statement. Despite being told that writing about their experiences could help them, the group as a whole felt more negative after thinking about their experiences.

The group that had been told to be self-compassionate felt better about themselves, at least according to some measures.

Researchers also compared the effects of introspection, like writing, with distraction.

Subjects went through the same experience to give them a negative mood. But in the second study, half of the group did the same writing exercises and another group watched letters appear on a screen and were told to watch for a certain letter.

The study found that both groups felt mostly similar after their exercises, suggesting that being distracted from problems is as good as even the most productive forms of introspection. The study did find, however, that writing with self-compassion helped promote some more actively positive feelings in comparison with distraction.

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