24 Dec 2020 by Heather S. Lonczak, Ph.D.
Scientifically reviewed by William Smith, Ph.D.
Aristotle spoke of the pleasures inherent in the cathartic release of tension.
Catharsis has since been used within the mental health field to describe the practice of emotional expression, which is essential for communicating our needs, desires, and emotions (Brackett & Simmons, 2015).
Plus, being able to express one’s emotions is associated with various positive outcomes, such as increased adjustment to stressors (Moreno, Wiley, & Stanton, 2017), greater life satisfaction (Stanton, Kirk, Cameron, & Danoff-Burg, 2000), and increased psychological resilience (Eldeleklioglu & Yildiz, 2020).
This article will delve into healthy emotional expression, including tips on expressing your emotions, the downside of keeping things in, expression through art and writing, and much more.
With this plethora of resources, readers will be better able to reap the rewards of healthy emotional expression.
In times of joy, all of us wished we possessed a tail we could wag.W. H. Auden
Expressing Your Emotions in a Healthy Way: 16 Tips
While you may understand logically, that healthy emotional expression is important, how to go about it isn’t always straightforward. Fortunately, there are many ways to facilitate healthy emotional expression; here are 18 tips:
1. Use positive self-talk.
We all have an inner dialogue running through our heads, which is sometimes negative and counterproductive. If you have a negative inner dialogue, this is bound to make healthy self-expression difficult (Beck et al., 1979; Ingram & Wisnicki, 1988; Hiçdurmaz et al., 2017). Consider whether the messages in your head are damaging and if so, work on ways to replace them with positive ones.
2. Be a good listener.
It might be helpful to remember that…“we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus.
It is hurtful to feel unheard (Nichols, 2009), so listen to your family, friends, and coworkers and you will be in a far better position to respond with expressions of empathy and understanding.
3. Try spirituality.
Mother Teresa said:…“Joy is prayer; joy is strength; joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”
Many others have also found strength in the self-transcendent emotions related to spirituality (Stellar et al., 2017; Haidt, 2003), and if you need an extra nudge in terms of expressing your emotions, it might help you too.
4. Teach emotion words to young children.
Children often lack the language ability to express how they feel. By using tools such as faces conveying different emotions, children will be helped to understand the words for different emotions (Grosse et al., 2021; Streubel et al., 2020).
5. Practice empathy.
Whether among family (Geiger et al., 2016), friends (Goleman, 2006), or coworkers (McKee et al., 2017), practicing empathy creates bonds that enable us to be emotionally in sync with others.
6. Model emotional expression.
Children who see adults healthily express a range of emotions are more likely to follow suit (Corso, 2007). If you are someone who spends time with young people, show them what healthy emotional expression looks like.
Elbert Hubbard said:
The ineffable joy of forgiving and being forgiven forms an ecstasy that might well arouse the envy of the gods.
Whether you have not forgiven yourself or someone else, holding a grudge is the antithesis of expression. If you free yourself from resentment, you will open your heart and mind to positive expression Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2014; Toussaint & Webb, 2005; Karremans et al. 2003).
8. Practice acceptance.
Happiness can exist only in acceptance.
Try to accept those aspects of your life that are out of your control. Doing so will make you feel better while freeing up your mind to become more emotionally expressive (Chapman et al., 2011; Linehan, 2014). For more on that, read our article on Radical Acceptance.
9. Play games with kids that promote emotional expression.
Games are a fun and valuable approach for teaching children how to express themselves. For example, the Emotion Locomotion program for children ages 6–8 uses a train analogy to teach an array of emotions such as anger, sadness, and happiness (McLachlan et al., 2009).
10. Be grateful.
Happiness is itself a kind of gratitude.
Joseph Wood Krutch
It is pretty hard to be unhappy while feeling thankful. Appreciate what you have and you will be better able to express a sense of joy (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000; Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Emmons & Stern, 2013).
11. Don’t postpone happiness – savor the moment.
Many people will not allow themselves to be happy until they reach some sort of milestone (e.g., weight loss, job promotion, etc.). The moment for joy is NOW, and savoring pleasant experiences – big or small – has been associated with higher levels of subjective wellbeing (Smith & Bryant, 2017). Read more about the pursuit of happiness and the benefits of positive emotions.
12. Try something new.
If you are having trouble expressing your feelings, perhaps you are in a rut. Getting out of your comfort zone often leads to greater emotional expression and wellbeing (Heller et al., 2020).
13. Take a risk.
Emotional expression equals risk; it means you are putting yourself in the position of potential rejection. But meaningful conversations and relationships require such risk. So, take a chance and you will be rewarded (Brown, 2015).
14. Be optimistic.
Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.
By focusing on the positive, you will find it easier to express yourself in a range of situations while enjoying the many wonders of life (Seligman, 2006).
15. Do some gardening.
In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.
Gardening is like art; there are endless lovely plants and flowers from which to express your creativity. And besides, who knows what you might find within yourself (Lumber et al., 2017)?
16. Practice mindfulness.
Whether in the form of meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises, mindfulness has been found to promote optimism, happiness, positive emotional states, and self-acceptance (Amutio et al., 2015). Each of these outcomes aids in the promotion of emotional expression.
What Happens When You Don’t Express Your Emotions?
Feelings or emotions are the universal language and are to be honored. They are the authentic expression of who you are in your deepest place.
Keeping things in is indeed a bad idea. While this notion makes intuitive sense, it is also supported by research. Here are 13 notable examples:
- Women who suppressed emotions during an experimental study were found to have increased blood pressure (Butler et al., 2003).
- In a study of emotion regulation, those who suppressed their feelings experienced less positive and more negative emotions (Gross & John, 2003).
- In a study in which participants either expressed or suppressed emotions following a disgusting film, those who suppressed their feelings experienced relatively increased cardiovascular activation (Roberts, Levenson, & Gross, 2008).
- In a 12-year prospective study, emotional suppression was related to a significantly greater risk of both cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality (Chapman, Fiscella, Kawachi, Duberstein, & Muennig, 2013).
- In a comprehensive meta-analysis by Chervonsky and Hunt (2017), emotion suppression was related to poorer relationship quality, lower social satisfaction, lower social support, more negative first impressions, and lower social wellbeing.
- In a preliminary study, adult male participants who suppressed their emotions after watching a distressing film clip experienced greater distress and increased heart rate (Tull, Jakupcak, & Roemer, 2010).
- In a study comparing individuals diagnosed with major depression versus healthy controls, suppression of both negative and positive emotions was associated with increased depressive symptoms among depressed individuals (Beblo et al., 2012).
- Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, and Hofmann (2006) found that emotion suppression after watching an emotion-provoking film was related to increased negative emotions among individuals suffering from anxiety and mood disorders.
- In an experiment in which participants gave a speech in front of a camera, those who suppressed their emotions experienced more anxiety and increased heart rate (Hofmann, Heering, Sawyer, & Asnaani, 2009).
- Quartana and Burns (2007) conducted a study in which participants experienced a mental arithmetic task with or without harassment followed by a cold-presser experience (i.e., dipping a person’s hand in very cold water). Those in the suppression group reported greater pain levels.
- In their review of the aggression and emotion regulation literature, Roberton, Daffern, and Bucks (2012) reported that under-regulation of emotion was associated with an increased probability of aggression.
- In an investigation using a daily diary method to assess positive and negative mood, those who suppressed their emotions experienced higher negative affect and lower positive affect (Brockman, Ciarrochi, Parker, & Kashdan, 2016).
- In a study comparing clinically depressed, formerly depressed, and never-depressed participants, all groups were presented with an affective priming task. Among the formerly depressed group, emotion suppression was related to increased depressive symptoms (Joormann & Gotlib, 2010).
Expressing Emotions Through Art and Writing
Wherever the soul is in need, art presents itself as a resourceful healer.
McNiff, 2004, p. 5
Art therapy is often used by mental health practitioners to deal with a range of issues such as coping with trauma, addiction, learning disabilities, and other medical and psychological problems (Malchiodi, 2012).
The general population may also enjoy many mental health benefits, including emotional expression, from engaging in writing, as well as other artistic endeavors. Five ways of using creativity to express oneself are presented below.
Regardless of your skills, writing is an effective way to express emotions and communicate with others. For example, in a study by Barclay and Skarlicki (2009), participants were placed in one of the following four groups:
- Writing about emotions
- Writing about thoughts
- Writing about emotions and thoughts regarding an injustice
- Writing about a trivial topic
Those who wrote about their emotions and thoughts were higher in terms of psychological wellbeing and personal resolution than the other groups (Barclay & Skarlicki, 2009).
Similarly, writing about traumatic events has been associated with greater physical and psychological outcomes among both clinical and non-clinical samples (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). Along these lines, creating narratives about emotional situations has been linked with a variety of positive psychological outcomes (Niederhoffer & Pennebaker, 2009).
Whether you prefer journaling, storytelling, or some other type of writing, go for it – it is bound to make you feel better.
Drawing is another fun and easy way to express emotions and embrace happiness. Not surprisingly, research has found that drawing to either express positive emotions or vent stress is related to enhanced mood (Smolarski, Leone, & Robbins, 2015).
Handling clay is another enjoyable activity that has been associated with enhanced mood (Kimport & Robbins, 2012). Often used as a tool in art therapy, clay handling is associated with many positive therapeutic outcomes such as enhanced emotional expression, verbal communication, and catharsis (Sholt & Gavron, 2006).
You may recall gathering magazines and using glue to put together collages during elementary school. However, this fun activity is not just for kids. Indeed, creating collages is a terrific way for people of all ages to express feelings that are difficult to convey verbally (Buchalter, 2011).
Moreover, this activity has been associated with enhanced problem-solving and decision-making skills, communication, and socialization among seniors (Buchalter, 2011).
Mandalas are beautiful geometric shapes that may be drawn or colored to promote a sense of calm. Mandalas were first used as a therapeutic tool by Carl Jung (Henderson, Rosen, & Mascaro, 2007) and have since been used by therapists and laypeople alike.
The benefits of creating mandalas are supported by research. For example, drawing mandalas has been related to decreases in trauma-related symptoms among individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (Henderson et al., 2007).
8 Techniques for Expressing Emotions in Relationships
Effective communication is the cornerstone of healthy relationships.
Nonetheless, sometimes individuals need a little help letting their feelings out. Here are eight research-supported ways in which relationships may be improved through the healthy expression of emotions:
Mindfulness involves paying attention to one’s feelings and thoughts in the moment and without judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). Mindfulness meditation has also been used as a way to enhance relationship quality and satisfaction.
For example, Carson, Carson, Gil, and Baucom (2004) conducted a mindfulness meditation retreat with healthy couples. They found that mindfulness was related to a whole host of long-term positive outcomes such as greater closeness, acceptance of each other, optimism, relaxation, relatedness, and relationship happiness.
Given these findings, couples in either healthy or challenging relationships may well benefit from the use of mindfulness techniques as a way to foster emotional connectedness, expression, and overall relationship satisfaction.
2. Expression of negative emotions
All types of relationships inevitably require the expression of negative emotions. When feelings of resentment, frustration, anger, and disappointment are suppressed, they may explode later and cause great damage to relationships.
For example, Graham, Huang, Clark, and Helgeson (2008) looked at the effects of the expression of negative emotions on relationship outcomes among college students. They reported that negative emotional expression was related to greater intimacy, the formation of more relationships, and increased support.
Of course, expressing negative emotions may be hurtful if done thoughtlessly. Therefore, whether relationships are among intimate partners, friendships, or coworkers, take a deep breath before expressing negative feelings and communicate them with tact, empathy, and sensitivity.
3. Use positive psychology activities
O’Connell, O’Shea, and Gallagher (2017) used a longitudinal design to explore the impact of positive psychology activities on relationship satisfaction. More specifically, participants were assigned to a relationship-focused gratitude activity, a relationship-focused kindness activity, a self-focused activity, or a control condition.
Both of the relationship-focused activities were related to significant improvements in relationship satisfaction. By expressing kindness (e.g., giving a compliment, doing a favor, giving a thoughtful gift) or gratitude (e.g., giving praise or thanking someone), the quality of various types of relationships is likely to be improved.
4. Try the Gottman methods
John Gottman and Julie Gottman (2008) have created a range of relationship-enhancing methods that, over three decades of research, have been associated with numerous positive relationship outcomes (Gottman & Gottman, 2008). Here are five of their proven strategies:
- Build love maps.
This involves showing an active interest in a partner’s feelings and needs. The Gottmans suggest using a ‘Love Map Card Deck’ to help express difficult emotions such as confusion and frustration.
- Build a culture of appreciation.
Sometimes individuals feel gratitude for their partner, but forget to say so. This approach involves actively showing appreciation for one’s partner by thanking them, which Gottman describes as “cultivating a positive habit of mind” (Gottman & Gottman, 2008, p. 153).
- Turn toward bids.
The Gottmans describe bids as “verbal or nonverbal requests for connection” (Gottman & Gottman, 2008, p. 153). This basically involves building an emotional bank account by asking one’s partner what they need and responding positively.
- Emotion coaching.
This involves taking a partner’s ‘emotional temperature’ by checking in to see how they are doing.
- Building positive affect.
The Gottmans believe that building positive feelings in relationships promotes intimacy and positive feelings. They suggest prioritizing a number of ‘positive affect systems’ into relationships to promote humor, curiosity, play, comfort, and curiosity.
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
At PositivePsychology.com, we offer various useful tools aimed at expressing healthy emotions; here are two examples:
1. Fostering Empathy Reflectively
This tool is designed for social workers but can be a great way to help clients develop the skill of reading each other’s emotional expressions. It involves a few activities and reflection prompts, for example:
- Watch an emotional scene in a film or drama between two to four characters.
- Now, reflect on how the characters behaved and the feelings they may have experienced.
- Write down how you think each character felt.
- Write down what you think motivated each character.
This exercise fosters empathy and understanding, which ultimately promote stronger relationships.
2. Emotional Expression Checklist
This tool is designed to promote adaptive emotional expression by helping clients reflect on their context before they express how they feel.
Clients are invited to consider their intended outcomes, the potential impact of expressing themselves on the other person, and how their intentions align with their values.
3. 17 Emotional Intelligence Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, this collection contains 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.
A Take-Home Message
Gandhi believed that
“happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
Gandhi understood the importance of emotional expression. Consistent with his teachings, the ability to express how we feel is associated with numerous physical, emotional, and psychological benefits.
Therefore, if you find yourself feeling pent up, there is good reason to let those feelings out in a healthy way. And in doing so, you are sure to experience enhanced relationships, serenity, and contentment.