Joshua Smyth is a Professor at the Pennsylvania State University, who focuses on understanding how people, their perceptions and interactions with the world, shape their health. He is uniquely interested in how we respond to stress, manage stress and the interventions that we can share to improve happiness, wellbeing, resilience and health.
A stressor is the stimuli, an environment that has the potential to threaten or harm us. This could be a literal threat or danger or something that is a threat to our self-concept or integrity.
A stress response is our psychological, behavioural or physiological response to a stressor in our environment. This is much more individual as how much we respond will differ to others, even if the stress event is very similar. Joshua’s work focuses around help people respond less if it is not necessary or more appropriately when it is necessary, to deal with these challenges in their environment.
Thinking or worrying about an event creates a stressor that is in many ways just as real as if the event was actually happening. The more vividly that we create something from the past or worry about something in the future – the more our responses look like they would if we were actually in that circumstance, causing anxiety.
We have the ability to screen information very quickly for threat, and activate an adrenaline response to gear us up for action. This is a stress response. Our body also engages in this process when we have a positive event. In many ways, any attempt to adapt to an environmental challenge (good or bad), that is changing from what we normally do, can be called a stressor. People talk about stress, which is bad for you and eustress, which is more positive. Eustress is not threatening or harmful, the challenge will enrich or improve a life, such as getting married, going on holiday or passing an exam.
The capacity to evaluate what an event means to you determines how people respond. You may see it as a disaster and have a very strong stress response or you may think…well that may be difficult for a while but I will move on – this has exactly the same stressor but you will have a less pronounced stress response over a shorter duration. The risk is to blame the victim for not looking at the situation right, but that is not the entirety of the situation as some situations may be genuinely bad, like the loss of a loved one.
Every stressor has multiply attributes. The loss of a loved one includes grief, bereavement and loss of a cherished relationship. There may be social, financial, practical, emotional or spiritual implications which have a unique role in the individuals life.
There is a critical point of divergence in options when we start to cope with or manage a stressful event. We may try to actually deal with the problem, deal with our emotional responses or avoid the problem completely because it is bothersome. Avoiding or ignoring the problem is only helpful in the short term. Long term we need to make sure our goals focus on outcomes to improve the situation or our responses to it. If you can not change your environment, you must change your stress response, how you respond or manage the consequences of the stressful environment.
Joshua has been researching how to help people feel that the challenges in their lives are not overwhelming. People seem unwilling to share, talk about and get help for these problems. When admitting weakness or insecurities, people often feel embarrassed or ashamed and worry about negative social responses. Sometimes just thinking about everything that you have to do is simply overwhelming.
Joshua M Smyth and James W Pennebaker have written a book to help people break down and manage the challenges and stressors in their lives. It is called Open up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. This is a non technical book based around scientific literature, which includes concrete suggestions around how people can integrate these practices into life to promote their own wellbeing.
Writing and language is very interesting as it can create order and distance. You can’t write everything at once so you have to start to put order onto it. You can structure your writing in temporal order, or structure it with people but straight away it takes an incredible complex experience and starts to break it into parts and order. A part is less overwhelming, as by breaking things down they become more manageable. By ordering and structuring experiences, you create effective distance and adopt a slightly different perspective than that simply of the experiencer and in doing so change the way your brain encodes experiences and reactions to change. Research has shown that this helps us reduce our emotional responses.
Joshua has researched the necessity for thoughts and facts verses emotions and feeling when writing. Some people wrote purely about the facts, others wrote purely about their emotions and another group wrote about thoughts and emotions and attempted to resolve them. He found that only those people who attempted to include and integrate both thoughts and feelings, showed a benefit. This is what Joshua calls expressive writing.
He is not saying that expressive writing is a replacement for qualified help but for more ongoing self-maintenance where you are dealing with challenges. This is one way to help you manage your challenges and help you be healthy and happy in the long run.
People keep journals for different reasons and in clearly different ways. Some write on a very fixed schedule regardless of what happens in their life and others only write when important things happen to them. The degree to which journaling is helpful depends on whether the writing includes thoughts and feelings and such like.
Joshua feels that this writing process is very much for yourself. When you know that nobody else is going to read it, you are more honest, insightful and revealing. If other people are going to see it, it pulls back the level and honesty of the disclosure as you are fearful of how others will respond.
Turning these experiences into words helps emotional distancing and facilitates the change in the neurorepresentation of the brain from an emotional image based representation to a language and fact based respresentation.
Listen to our full podcast with Professor Joshua M Smyth