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Express Yourself: Writing About Your Feelings About HIV

A friend of mine recently was telling me about an article he read about a study where people living with HIV who were shy – socially, emotionally reserved – had significantly worse overall health than people who were not shy. This story seemed to underscore the old adage about how “it’s not good for you to bottle up your feelings.”

Then I came across another recent study, this one from a Dr. Kevin J. Petrie of the University of Auckland (Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, March/April 2004, 66:272-275), about how 37 people living with HIV were studied in two groups: one group who expressively wrote about their feelings for 30 minutes a day on 4 consecutive days, and a comparison group who wrote objectively about how they occupied their time. It was found that the CD4 count of the “emotionally expressive” writers increased gradually and continually in the 6 months after the writing sessions, but there was no CD4 change in the comparison group. Dr. Petrie concluded that his study’s findings were consistent with others that found that people “who don’t get to discuss their feelings have a faster decline in their health.”

As a psychotherapist who specializes in helping people living with HIV, I suppose I couldn’t have asked for a better “commercial” for my services!I got to thinking about how people can get the most out of study news like this. While this news will inspire some people to immediately start writing daily to Dear Diary, for others, writing isn’t their thing. But perhaps other forms of emotional expression are. Art, for example, could also serve the purpose of cathartically “getting out” pent-up emotions and bring some relief of stress. Perhaps you could make a collage on a theme of some your strongest emotions – Is it anger about being newly diagnosed? Fear of what HIV complications could bring? Courage and determination to stay healthy over the long haul? Positive images of healthy and vibrant people to model yourself after? Just going through the process of cutting pictures out of old magazines and newspapers of people, words, or images that symbolize the way you feel can help you to identify your deepest emotions.

Music is another great form of therapy. I’ve often said that there is a show tune appropriate for every emotional situation in life! But listening to all forms of music can be therapeutic, especially when the singer is expressing the very thoughts and feelings that you’re having – though perhaps you don’t think in rhyme. One fun exercise is to simply turn on the radio, and see if the singer is using the exact words to express what you’re feeling. After a few songs are played, you’ll probably hit right on what’s on your mind.

Sculpture is another creative outlet – and you don’t need a hammer, chisel, and a 2,000-pound block of marble. Just getting some modeling clay (very inexpensive at toy, art supply, or craft stores) and pounding away can not only be an outlet for pent-up physical energy, but also gives the instant gratification of creating an object from your own hands. If the clay is a little “too” hands-on for you, many cities offer ceramics studios where you can express yourself by custom-painting the finished product.

From the studies above, it’s not clear exactly why people who get their feelings out and express themselves do better physically. Perhaps it goes back to the time of Greeks, when seeing a deeply moving tragic play gave an experience of catharsis for the audience. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that when we cry, our tears release the body of certain toxins, or when we laugh, our blood pressure goes down. The entire world history of art, music, and literature shows us that human beings were meant to express their feelings as a part of healthy living. With all the societal admonitions not to let feelings out (big kids don’t cry, keep a stiff upper lip, chin up, keep up appearances), it seems that we need studies like this to remind us that it is really is OK, especially in a special time and place set aside just for ourselves, to let it all out. Talking to a therapist is certainly one way to do this – after all, psychotherapy was originally dubbed “the talking cure” in the time of the pioneering Sigmund Freud, but keeping the emotional channels open has many vehicles.

Whether it’s writing, music, art, or another form of creative expression, chances are there is an outlet that is just right for you as an enjoyable new hobby or routine to add to your week. In the words of one who has never kept her emotions all that pent-up, and is also very supportive of those living with HIV/AIDS, the legendary Madonna, “Express yourself!”

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