It’s time to confess — keeping secrets is bad for students’ mental health and immune systems, according to psychology professor Jamie Pennebaker.
Pennebaker researches expressive writing as a way of venting feelings, such as shame or trauma. Research participants worked through these personal emotions by writing about anything that was bothering them. This writing puts harmful experiences or emotions into words and helps the writer stop focusing on
“If there’s something that’s on your mind, just set aside at least 15 minutes and just begin writing,” Pennebaker said. “Write about what happened, how you’re feeling, how it’s relating to other issues in your life. Whatever it is, you should really focus on your deepest thoughts and feelings about whatever experiences you’re dealing with.”
Turning the experience into a story can make it more concise and easier to understand, according to Pennebaker.
“It helps just to label it, what happened, how you feel,” he said. “You don’t need to obsess about it anymore.”
Troubling emotions or experiences can be harmful because people tend to worry about them. This overthinking can affect sleep patterns and the immune system.
“When you are thinking or obsessing about something, you can’t sleep as well, you can’t pay attention to your environment as well, you can’t pay attention to your friends as well, because these thoughts and feelings keep overwhelming you,” Pennebaker said.
Sometimes people avoid thinking about these experiences and try to suppress them, according to educational psychology professor Stephanie Rude. Ironically, this makes them think about the issue even more.
“In the long run, [suppression] can cause problems because the memory is still there,” Rude said. “Sometimes there’s a sense of just not understanding why something happened. Writing about it can help people get different perspectives and stop ruminating.”
College students who are struggling to face new responsibilities may also benefit from talking about what worries them, Rude said.
“They’re in a new academic environment that’s probably more challenging than what they’ve experienced before, and they’re feeling the pressure of impending adulthood,” she said.
Anthropology sophomore Roselia Jaimes said college students often worry about schoolwork and their social lives.
“I have a couple of really close friends that I share things with,” she said. “I think it definitely helps with stress and mental health overall.”
People who don’t have these interactions and are less willing to share their emotions to other people benefit the most from expressive writing, Rude said.
“That made sense to us because people who are talking pretty freely about their struggles with other people are likely to get a lot of the same benefits as people get from expressive writing,” she said.
Although sharing problems and expressive writing can help with emotionally traumatic events, it can also help with less serious issues, according to Pennebaker.
“Humans are funny,” he said. “They stay up late or wake up in the middle of the night for all sorts of things: ‘Did I study the right material? Did I turn off the stove?’”
Pennebaker said people should try different methods until they find a satisfactory way of expressing themselves.
“Experiment,” he said. “What works for one person may not work for another.”