Updated: Jan 7
What would happen if I were to say to you “do not think of a white polar bear”.. Well, most likely, an image of a white polar bear popped into your head! This is very similar to our thoughts, especially unwanted or intrusive ones. The more we try to keep them silenced, the more they pop up at random moments. Our brain is a fascinating computer that is always making sense of our experiences and the world around us so, when we bottle things up or suppress unwanted thoughts or emotions it creates more suffering.
I recently listened to a podcast that described a study completed with holocaust survivors and their traumatic experiences. Many survivors kept silent about their experiences for decades and did not share their stories because others could not understand.
James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology from UT Austin and an expert in the power of expressing our emotions, wondered how this impacted survivors. He invited survivors to give videotaped testimony of the trauma they endured.
When the survivors were able to organize and put words to their experiences what they discovered was profound. After completing the interviews, they followed up with the survivors one year later and self-reports revealed an overall improvement in well-being and happiness. Not only did the survivors report feeling better but they also discovered those who shared their story had lower heart rates and fewer visits to their medical doctor that year.
Since the initial research in the 1980’s, hundreds of similar studies have been conducted and shown similar results among many other positive associations such as better sleep, improved immune systems and reduced stress.
As a defense mechanism we try to protect ourselves by putting away the “bad stuff”, if you will, because it is too painful to process or think about. Telling your story can change your life; let your bad thoughts out by writing it down or talking about it with a trusted therapist. Let your brain organize and understand these experiences so you can heal and gain a new perspective on life.
If you are interested in listening to the podcast mentioned above:
The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
Season 1 Episode: Don’t Think of the White Bear