I don’t know about you, but I do know that the endless days of indoor living and social isolation are getting to me. I am more easily frustrated, irritable and restless. It’s taken some discipline to rein those negative feelings in, and I admit to days where I am less successful than I wish I was. What about you? Have you felt the need to get feelings or frustration with something off your chest, the kind that keep you awake at night or gnaw at you until they’re voiced? We know that those kinds of feelings aren’t good for our health, as confirmed by a significant body of psychological research on the relationship between emotions and health–but I learned this in earnest the hard way. Some years ago, I realized I’d been living under extreme stress for well over a decade, triggered by my husband’s death, a significant career transition, and a decade of major moves from coast to coast. I soldiered valiantly through it all, but cracks began to appear in my armor. I slept poorly, and I was often impatient and short-tempered. A few close friends expressed concern, but it wasn’t until my diagnosis of early stage breast cancer that I really understood the impact all that bottled up emotional stress had on my health.
Around the same time, I read Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (1997), the early work on emotional inhibition and health by James Pennebaker, PhD, whose subsequent research on writing and healing set off an explosion of similar studies and inspired numerous expressive writing programs. Pennebaker demonstrated how expressing emotions was not only good for one’s soul, but beneficial to our physical and psychological health. The studies he cited made one thing very clear: holding negative emotions inside, also known as “inhibition,” is detrimental to health.
Our bodies respond to the ways we think and feel. Stress and anxiety weaken immune system function, and negative emotions can have effect on circulation, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, even hormonal functioning. It can heighten our vulnerability to disease or manifest itself as back pain, fatigue, or headaches. Research suggests that holding on to negative feelings may actually shorten our lives. According to some studies, optimistic people have longer lives than pessimistic ones. Ridding ourselves of negative emotion may improve physical health as well as the body’s power to heal.
It’s not always as easy as it sounds. Everyone experiences strong or negative emotions from time to time, and during difficult or painful experiences like a marital break-up, job loss, or a diagnosis of cancer, heart failure or other serious conditions, those feelings can be intense. Anger, anxiety, fear or pessimism are common, but that’s not all. When we suffer a new wound to our psyches, old, unresolved wounds from the past can re-open and bleed again. Fortunately, there are many therapeutic tools to assist in the healing process, and as the research shows, writing and telling our stories of our illnesses, hardships or struggles is one of them.
Many writers, novelist Henry James once said, begin writing from a port of pain, finding a kind of release and solace in putting their deepest—and most fearful—feelings on paper, whether in diaries, journals or poetry and stories. Port of pain or not, it’s often hard to get started, difficult to give ourselves the freedom to express all we’re feeling on the page, even though we want to. “Keep the pen moving,” I often say to the participants in my writing groups. “Write without stopping or thinking about what appears on the page.” The time limits imposed for different writing exercises helps, because it forces them to write quickly, in effect, silencing their internal critics. Often, when someone chooses to read what they’ve written aloud, I hear the comment, “I didn’t know I wrote that…” after an especially powerful sentence or paragraph.
One of my favorite examples of “release” through writing is in learning to free up and write a rant, something that just “lets it all out.” I often use a poem by Rosanne Lloyd, a contemporary poet who combines eloquence with directness and forcefulness in her writing. her poem, “Exorcism of Nice,” is one I find helpful in inspiring writing group members to “just let it go.” In this poem, the poet reacts to a litany of long-time restraints, expressing anger and pain that has silenced her own voice:
Mum’s the word
Short and sweet
Keep it down
Keep the lid on
Hold it down
In a shell…
Oh, Wicked Mother of the Kingdom of Silence
I have obeyed you
(From: Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)
Lloyd’s poem is a useful model for freeing up to express negative emotions on the page. “Anything goes,” I frequently say as group members begin writing. “Whatever is on your mind, whatever is irritating you, making you angry or frustrated–just write it.” What invariably happens in the writing that follows is always powerful, even sometimes hilarious, and coupled with a newfound freedom to write honestly and deeply—the kind of writing that has the potential for healing.
In this time of social distancing, self-isolation and uncertainty, I know my frustration tends to surface more often than usual, and in those moments, I become irritable and negative. It has helped me to write regularly, and I’ll confess that a few rants have appeared in my notebook, but the beauty of doing so for me, is that my list of frustrations turns into a parody of my feelings and results in rather light-hearted and humorous endings to whatever frustration I’m feeling. More than a few silly poems have resulted in the pages of my notebook in these many weeks of indoor living.
Perhaps trying out a rant is something you can try writing when COVID-19 necessary restrictions on our lives gets to you. Why not give yourself permission to “let it all hang out” on paper—to expel any anger, frustration, or pain that may be building inside as the days continue to move slowly and with increasing monotony. It’s an exercise for release—and it can even be fun.
Try writing your own rant. It can be about anything. You can use Roseanne Lloyd’s poem as a model or write one in letter form, as in Tony Cross’s “Open Letter to Hummingbirds,” appearing in McSweeneys, 2004, or Canadian comedian Rick Mercer’s video rants against things like winter, Tim Horton’s and some people’s behavior during COVID-19 (available on You Tube). Here is an excerpt from Cross’s letter to hummingbirds:
Hey, would you take it easy already? What’s the freakin’ rush, hummingbirds? I don’t get it—why must you flap your wings so damn fast? You need to chill out. Here I am, sitting in my garden, quietly reading a book and sipping on a fruit cocktail, and all of a sudden you’re buzzing into my field of vision…
I found the You Tube video rant by Canadian comedian Rick Mercer on seasonal amnesia personally relevant this past weekend. Our balmy spring weather from a week ago turned wintry, and snow flurries completely hid the view from our balcony of downtown Toronto. I ended up writing my own anti-winter weather rant too…the weather didn’t improve, but my mood did.
The nice thing about writing about difficult emotions or frustrations is that it helps you release them from you body to the page. You can be honest. No one needs to see what you’ve written. You can tear up your rant into a hundred tiny pieces or simply hit the “delete” button when you’re finished writing. What matters is that you write, without self-criticism, and release the frustration and negative emotions from the body to the page. Set the timer for fifteen minutes and have at it. Write a rant. It can be about anything. Exorcise those negative emotions or frustrations. You’ll just might feel better once you do.