No matter how healthy and happy we are in our everyday lives, there are going to be times when we experience stress. But we do not need to throw up our hands in despair when things go wrong; rather, we can use our personal and social resources to help us.
Perhaps the most common approach to dealing with negative affect is to attempt to suppress, avoid, or deny it. You probably know people who seem to be stressed, depressed, or anxious, but they cannot or will not see it in themselves. Perhaps you tried to talk to them about it, to get them to open up to you, but were rebuffed. They seem to act as if there is no problem at all, simply moving on with life without admitting or even trying to deal with the negative feelings. Or perhaps you have even taken a similar approach yourself. Have you ever had an important test to study for or an important job interview coming up, and rather than planning and preparing for it, you simply tried put it out of your mind entirely?
Research has found that ignoring stress is not a good approach for coping with it. For one, ignoring our problems does not make them go away. If we experience so much stress that we get sick, these events will be detrimental to our life even if we do not or cannot admit that they are occurring. Suppressing our negative e motions is also not a very g ood option, at least in the long run, because it tends to fail (Gross & Levenson, 1997). 1 For one, if we know that we have that big exam coming up, we have to focus on the exam itself to suppress it. We can’t really suppress or deny our thoughts, because we actually have to recall and face the event to make the attempt to not think about it. Doing so takes effort, and we get tired when we try to do it. Furthermore, we may continually worry that our attempts to suppress will fail. Suppressing our emotions might work out for a short while, but when we run out of energy the negative emotions may shoot back up into consciousness, causing us to re-experience the negative feelings that we had been trying to avoid.
Daniel Wegner and his colleagues (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987) 2 directly tested whether people would be able to effectively suppress a simple thought. He asked them to not think about a white bear for 5 minutes but to ring a bell in case they did. (Try it yourself; can you do it?) However, participants were unable to suppress the thought as instructed. The white bear kept popping into mind, even when the participants were instructed to avoid thinking about it. You might have had this experience when you were dieting or trying to study rather than party; the chocolate bar in the kitchen cabinet and the fun time you were missing at the party kept popping into mind, disrupting your work.
Suppressing our negative thoughts does not work, and there is evidence that the opposite is true: When we are faced with troubles, it is healthy to let out the negative thoughts and feelings by expressing them, either to ourselves or to others. James Pennebaker and his colleagues (Pennebaker, Colder, & Sharp, 1990; Watson & Pennebaker, 1989) 3 have conducted many correlational and experimental studies that demonstrate the advantages to our mental and physical health of opening up versus suppressing our feelings. This research team has found that simply talking about or writing about our emotions or our reactions to negative events provides substantial health benefits. For instance, Pennebaker and Beall (1986) 4 randomly assigned students to write a bout either the most traumatic and stressful event of their lives or trivial topics. Although the students who wrote about the traumas had higher blood pressure and more negative moods immediately after they wrote their essays, they were also less likely to visit the student health center for illnesses during the following six months. Other research studied individuals whose spouses had died in the previous year, finding that the more they talked about the death with others, the less likely they were to become ill during the subsequent year. Daily writing about one’s emotional states has also been found to increase immune system functioning (Petrie, Fontanilla, Thomas, Booth, & Pennebaker, 2004). 5
Opening up probably helps in various ways. For one, expressing our problems to others allows us to gain information, and possibly support, from them (remember the tend-and-befriend responsethat is so effectively used to reduce stress by women). Writing or thinking about one’s experiences also seems to help people make sense of these events and may give them a feeling of control over their lives (Pennebaker & Stone, 2004). 6
It is easier to respond to stress if we can interpret it in more positive ways. Kelsey et al. (1999) 7 found that some people interpret stress as a challenge (something that they feel that they can, with effort, deal with), whereas others see the same stress as a threat (something that is negative a nd fearful). People who viewed stress as a challenge had fewer physiological stress responses than those who viewed it as a threat—they were able to frame and react to stress in more positive ways.