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  • Frances Bilbao

The power of words

When in moments of emotional pain, confusion, sadness or despair, many of us have probably been advised to “talk it through” with someone. While intuitively we know that talking about our problems has benefits, there is also solid research to show that words and stories do have a real impact on how we experience emotions. Unfortunately, while medication such as anti-depressants can help alleviate acute symptoms of depression and anxiety and is often very necessary, it is also often unable to deal with the root-causes meaning conditions are only masked not cured. A number of studies show that a combined approach of medication and psychological or “talk” therapy produces the best recoveries. Even if you don’t require professional help, talking in general is a good thing and can be with a friend, a family member or anyone who will listen!

Here are three proven ways in which talking about your thoughts and feelings can help you feel more positive and get back to enjoying life with your family.

1. Immediate positive brain reactivity

Simply labelling your emotions and describing what you are feeling in words such as ‘I feel sad’, ‘I feel angry’, and ‘I feel trapped’ has an immediate impact on the brain. Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral, describes that almost instantly the deep and intense emotional part of our brain (the amygdala) shows reduced activity and our logical problem solving part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) is activated. By consciously recognising our emotions, their intensity is reduced. Labelling emotions is a key part of mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which have both been shown to help reduce depression, anxiety and improve positive feelings.

2. Long term positive brain re-wiring

Neuroimaging studies suggest that alterations in thought patterns, beliefs, feelings, and behaviours that occur with psychotherapy can lead to a normalization of functional brain activity at a global level. Both neural processes and brain structure have been shown to be effected. No wonder it is so hard to produce personal change quickly – we literally need to re-wire our brains into new ways of working! Because of the enormity of this task, talking with someone who can help coach us through those new ways and reinforce our new thoughts, beliefs and behaviours can be critical.

3. Stop repetition of your own, and your parents’ unhelpful behaviours

When left unprocessed or unconscious, our “default” approach to life is to repeat the same patterns over and over again. This is our brain’s way of being lazy or of simply using strategies it believes have served us well in the past. Unfortunately, our brain isn’t very good at deciphering between what was absolutely necessary, protective and useful in the PAST and what would really be necessary, protective and useful NOW. Even worse, most of us go around repeating not just our own, but our parent’s patterns as we internalised these in our childhood. Again, our brain isn’t very good at deciphering what was necessary, protective and useful for our PARENTS and what is really necessary, protective and useful for US. That means that many of us are actually engaging in thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that were possibly great in someone else’s situation 30 years ago but can be unhelpful or even damaging in our own lives.

Research shows that the best way to begin making conscious choices of our OWN NOW is to consciously construct a clear story about your past. By making sense of our own past we can come to recognise that our “instinctive” reactions are not always representative of how we want to parent for example. And we can start to understand why our children trigger us the way they do. This process involves reflecting on and talking about both the negative and positive aspects of our stories. We will find behaviours we’d like to emulate and others we want to abandon. Recognising the ways our parents or other influential caretakers affected us is part of growing up and becoming our own person.

Therapy may not be for everyone, but even if it isn’t, talk to a friend. They will be grateful you’ve shared and give them the go-ahead to do the same. Chances are you’ll feel better for it.

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