In reality, your brain and body get a lot out of talking.
When you are feeling very intense feelings — especially fear, aggression or anxiety — your amygdala is running the show. This is the part of the brain that, among other things, handles your fight or flight response. It is the job of the amygdala, and your limbic system as a whole, to figure out if something is a threat, devise a response to that threat if necessary, and store the information in your memory so you can recognize the threat later. When you get stressed or overwhelmed, this part of your brain can take control and even override more logical thought processes.
Research from U.C.L.A. suggests that putting your feelings into words — a process called “affect labeling” — can diminish the response of the amygdala when you encounter things that are upsetting. This is how, over time, you can become less stressed over something that bothers you. For example, if you got in a car accident, even being in a car immediately afterward could overwhelm you emotionally. But as you talk through your experience, put your feelings into words and process what happened, you can get back in the car without having the same emotional reaction.
Research from Southern Methodist University suggested that writing about traumatic experiences or undergoing talk therapy had a positive impact on a patient’s health and immune system. The study argues that holding back thoughts and emotions is stressful. You have the negative feelings either way, but you have to work to repress them. That can tax the brain and body, making you more susceptible to getting sick or just feeling awful.
None of that is to say that talking about your problems, or even talk therapy with a licensed therapist, will automatically fix everything and immediately make you happy and healthy. But, like eating better and exercising, it can contribute to overall improvement in your well-being. More important, it can help you understand how and why you feel the way you do, so you can handle your emotions more effectively in the future.
How can we do it better?
Crucially, not every form of talking about problems aloud can help. In fact, multiple studies examining college students, young women and working adults suggest that co-rumination — or consistently focusing on and talking about negative experiences in your life — can have the opposite effect, making you more stressed and drawing out how long a problem bothers you. To talk about your problems more constructively, there are a few key things you can do.
Choose the right people to talk to. If you’ve ever talked about how you’re feeling and it seems as if you got nothing out of it, you might be talking to the wrong person. Having a trusted friend who will support you (without enabling bad habits like co-rumination) can help. If you need specific advice on a problem, find someone who has faced similar problems and, ideally, has resolved them. And if you need a lot of talk time, try spreading your conversations out to multiple people. One person can get worn out, and having a broad social support system lets you distribute that load.
Choose the right time to talk. Just as important as choosing who to talk to is when you talk to them. Your friends may want to support you, but they have their own lives. Asking if they have the time and energy to talk before unpacking your emotional bags can help you both be better equipped for the conversation. This also means being courteous about their time. Sometimes crises happen and you might need to interrupt someone, but most supportive conversations can wait.
Find a therapist, even if you’re not mentally ill. Therapists often have a reputation for being necessary only if you have a mental illness. This isn’t the case. You can go to therapy if you are feeling overly stressed, if you are not sleeping well or if you just want someone to talk to. Think of it less like seeing a doctor and more like a personal trainer. Also, remember that just as with doctors, mechanics or anyone else you hire, there are good ones and bad ones (or bad ones for you), so if you don’t have success the first time, try someone else.
Give yourself an endpoint. Not all conversations about your problems need to lead to a plan of action for tangible change, but they do need to lead to something other than more complaining. Give yourself space to vent about your feelings and, while doing so, focus on how you are feeling throughout the process. If you are getting more worked up, take a break. If you find yourself talking about the same things over and over without gaining any new understanding or feeling any relief, try something else to process how you are feeling. You may not be able to fix the external problem that is bothering you, but the goal should at least be to improve your mood about it.
Talk about the good as well as the bad. Expressing how you’re feeling is healthy. Expressing yourself only when you feel bad isn’t. Whether you are talking to friends, partners or on social media, be sure to share your good experiences and feelings when they come up. Talking about these experiences can reinforce them in your brain and make it easier to break out of negative thought patterns later. Plus, it helps build your relationships with the people you are close enough to talk to.
Of course, this process can still be messy. Some days, talking about your problems may just be complaining about something that happened at work, but others it may involve crying into someone’s shoulder for an hour. It can feel embarrassing or uncomfortable the first few times, but the more you open up, the easier it will get to share how you feel.