A recent study found that, paradoxically, subjects who expressed their emotions about what they fear, in this case, a tarantula spider, where able to get closer to the spider and have less anxiety doing so, compared to those who did not express their emotions first. The emotion expressing group even fared better than the group who where instructed to think neutral or calming thoughts first (“this spider cannot hurt me–I am not afraid of it”) before attempting to touch the spider. Even more intriguing, the emotion expressing group was instructed to express only their emotions about the event (“I am terrified of this ugly spider”), without trying to change their thoughts or attitude about it.
This study reflects what I have found in therapy over and over again. Just focusing on helping my client’s to change the way they think about themselves, others, or the world (cognitive restructuring) does not seem to produce a sustained and lasting effect–in my experience. And, if it was that simple, I don’t think we would need therapists in the first place. How many times have friends or family said to you “you shouldn’t think that about yourself. That is not true.” Did you automatically change your sense of self after that?
More about the study can be found here