Hello and welcome to the Big Five podcasts from Northumbria psychology department. My name is Dr. Genavee Brown and I'll be your guide into the minds of psychology students, alumni and researchers at Northumbria University. I'm a lecturer and researcher in the psychology department. Each week on this podcast I'll speak to a guest who is either a student, alumni or researcher in the Northumbria psychology department. By asking them five big questions, we'll learn about their time studying psychology, and hopefully learn some big facts about human behavior and experience. This month of stress Awareness Month, so we'll be talking to two researchers Dr. Mark Weatherall and Dr. Michael Smith about their work on the consequences of stress and how we can reduce it. Today I have the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Michael Smith. Hello, Michael.
Hello, Genavee. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Michael Smith is an Associate Professor and Director of Research and exchange in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University, his general research interests in the areas of health psychology and psycho biology. Michael is an active member of the British Psychological Society and as a member of the BPS Research Board. In recent years, Michael has taken a keen interest in expressive writing as a technique to reduce stress and enhance well being. So Michael, your interest in expressive writing? Where did that come from? And what are some of the theories behind this work?
Well, my my interest really emerged from doing some public engagement work, public engagement, something I really enjoy, I really enjoy going out and talking to the public in various formats about the kinds of work that I do. And I've done a lot of work around the kind of psycho biology of the causes and consequences of stress. So I was really interested in kind of why we get stressed by different people get stressed in different contexts, and what the consequences of this are. So for example, adverse effects that stress might have on our physical health. And I was going out doing lots of public engagement work. And one of the things that kind of kept happening when I was doing public engagement work was that people would often say to me, Well, you know, what, I kind of sometimes feel a bit stressed in my day to day life, what can I do about it? How can I reduce my stress, and you know, I kind of would get a bit hand wavy, and kind of maybe, you know, talk about a few techniques that I was vaguely aware of, from the from the literature, however, you know, I wasn't really doing any of that work myself. So I didn't feel too confident, you know, kind of talking in that domain. And it really kind of struck me that actually really to kind of close off, close the loop and kind of complete the story. You know, my work around the causes and consequences of stress wasn't really complete without kind of doing some work myself around, actually, you know, what can we do about it? What can we do about this problem? So, you know, I started to have a bit of a think around some potential techniques that we might want to investigate. Partially, this was motivated by some students at Northumbria who I was working with, who were interested in the notion of expressive writing. And also my colleague, who I work quite closely with, you've mentioned already Professor Mark Weatherill, I've done quite a lot of work around a technique called written emotional disclosure. And basically, a written disclosure is a technique where you ask people to write about negative experiences that they've had in the past, they write very emotive Lee about negative life experiences, or in some cases, even trauma or traumatic events. And the idea is that this gives people an opportunity to kind of get these negative thoughts and feelings off their chest as work. So basically, you've got you're getting people to really, I guess, relive these negative experiences that might be kind of somewhat repressed really, the idea is that this will then make them feel much less and less distressed about these events. However, there's a couple of issues with written emotional disclosure, one of which is that in the short term, written emotional disclosure often causes an increase in psychological distress, because you asking people to essentially relive these negative life events, perhaps they haven't thought about for a while. And this can actually cause an increase in in psychological distress before it essentially makes things better. Also written emotional disclosure doesn't really work for everybody. And I was doing some work at that time looking at some techniques to use for diabetes patients, in particular for a grant but I was working on in collaboration with some others, and started to think about written emotional disclosure, and I was reading the literature around written emotional disclosure and diabetes and came across a fairly recent pilot study that suggests that actually written narration or disclosure is detrimental to the well being and people with diabetes, perhaps because of this, you know, short term increase in distress that we often see. So it kind of made me think, well, if I'm going out to public engagement events and saying to people, this is something you can try actually telling people to write about their kind of negative events maybe isn't really an ideal thing to do on that basis, and really fit that well with my kind of ethos around you know, my personal ethos is to kind of try and focus on the more positive aspects of life. And to kind of think about the positives of adverse situation, which this kind of led me to kind of flipping this on its head and looking at writing about more positive experiences. And also about the positive the benefits that have come out of an adverse situation, a technique called benefit finding, or in this case, a written benefit finding. And far less work has been done around positive, expressive writing and written benefit finding that it has been around written emotional disclosure. And essentially, that's what led me into exploring well, does positive writing and has written benefit finding work in these kinds of techniques be useful? Who did they work for? You know, what are the mechanisms involved in that kind of thing?
Yeah, I like that, turning that methodology on its head and making it something positive. That's really interesting. Can you tell us a bit more about this methodology? So what is positive, expressive writing? How the how do you actually go about it as a participant in one of your studies? And what kind of things do you measure after people have engaged in this positive expressive writing?
Okay, so what we the typical kind of paradigm requires our participants to write about, depending on the nature of the study, typically about a positive experience that we asked them to write about something that they've experienced in the past, which is a positive event, positive memory or positive experience. But it doesn't necessarily have to be something too kind of earth shattering, we actually say to participant, you know, this can be, you know, that feeling you get after reading a really good book, or, you know, listening to a really kind of evocative piece of music, or whatever the case may be. So it's really about finding something that people can write about very intensely, positively. In our initial studies, we actually got people to physically write, we'd give them a diary that would give them a pen and paper or give them a paper diary. And we'd ask them to write for 20 minutes, as in physically write, and we'd ask them to do this over three consecutive days, so that we could see what happened over the course of three days. So you've given us a basically a bit more robustness than just seeing what happened over the course of the single day. In our subsequent studies, we started to move this online. So we set up an online portal whereby people would actually type rather than kind of write with a pen and paper. And actually, this proved very useful because when COVID happened, did all of our research moves from face to face to online, we had a portal kind of already set up that we could use to run these studies. And what we typically do is were were quite interested in how there are short term changes and things like stress, anxiety and mood between immediately before and immediately after each writing session. And we're also interested in kind of more medium term changes to sometimes we asked some baseline questions around asking people to report such things as their depression, anxiety, stress, physical health, depending on what it is that we're interested in investigating. And then we will sometimes go back to them maybe two weeks, or four weeks later, after the three days of writing to kind of see see whether these changes have persisted in the medium term. We've also become interested recently, I mean, I'm a psycho biologist, essentially by training. So I'm interested in biological parameters. And we did kind of start to explore a little bit around what some of the sort of biological mechanisms might be. So it can we measure changes in kind of things like heart rate, blood pressure, these kinds of things, while people are actually writing? And do we see that this actually has a calming effect in terms of on their biological and disease. We didn't get very far into this work before the COVID looked down here. And we kind of had to kind of abandon this research. And we're slowly starting to pick it up again. So I guess, sort of watch this space in terms of how there might be some kind of biological changes as a function of of engaging in these kinds of expressive writing tasks.
Interesting. Wow, that's fascinating. I wonder if you could tell us about the most exciting or surprising thing that you've learned from this line of study. And also wondered if you've ever looked at what people write about in their positive writing? What are some of the typical things that make people really happy, and that they write about in these studies?
Yeah, that's, yeah, a couple of good questions. So you've asked the most interesting point, if you don't mind, I'm going to give you two. That's fine. So one really is that we need to do a bit more work on this because there's some some hints in the data, that this technique, this positive writing technique might be particularly beneficial for people who are socially inhibited. In a couple of our studies, we've sort of found that there's moderation effects by by social inhibition. So I'm kind of quite interested to explore this a bit further and kind of try to understand why this is my kind of gut hunch is that if people are kind of quite shy, socially inhibited, might not have the kind of large social networks where they have lots of opportunities to express their emotions. Maybe this gives them an avenue to do this to kind of be much more upfront about expressing their positive feelings and emotions, then they would, but then somebody who kind of does this all the time as part of their day to day life, because, you know, they're more extroverted and more likely to kind of talk quite openly and positively about their emotions. So that's, that's kind of one hint we've got from a data that I'm really interested to follow up further. And the second kind of interesting finding, I think that's emerged come from a study that we conducted during, during COVID, during the first COVID, lockdown. And what we did was, we asked participants to talk about any kind of benefits that they experienced as a result of being in lockdown, another awful kind of whole experience. Obviously, at this time, we were living under a very, very strict stay at home orders and that kind of thing. And one of the things that I really noticed when I was talking to people, you know, obviously, I call friends, family, whatever. And so you know, how you getting on how you doing? What other people kind of doing so Oh, yeah, it's all a bit rubbish, isn't it, but you know what, it's great, because it's given me the opportunity to have dinner with the kids that I wouldn't normally get to do, or, you know, watch this box that I've been mean, to watch for ages, or, you know, I've really been making sure I use my one hour of exercise a day, and I'm getting out and I've run more keys this month than I ever have anything but month before. So, you know, people, I found what they end up doing this sort of naturally. So what we did during the COVID, lockdown was we asked people, we asked our participants to write either about the benefits of being in this situation, or we asked them to basically just descriptively describe a day during lockdown. And what we found was that those who wrote about the benefits of being in the situation showed a significantly greater decrease in state anxiety between immediately before and immediately after the writing session. So you know, I think this kind of was a nice finding for me, because it kind of backs up my idea, you know, actually trying to focus on the positives of an unfair situation is really, really beneficial. So for me, this was kind of one of the most exciting findings that we've had, and it was a really good opportunity for us to investigate this, obviously, you know, we, obviously, the COVID situation was awful, and we all wish isn't happening still. But, you know, it gave us from a research perspective, it gave us a really good opportunity to investigate this, because obviously, finding a situation where all of our participants are in the same adverse situation, it can be more difficult, whereas, you know, this was a study we could conduct across the whole UK population. Same situation. And I think you asked me another question.
Yeah, no, I was wondering what kind of things participants write about? Oh, did you? I mean, did you look at those COVID data also, and see what kind of positive things people were talking about? And then in general, in your other studies, have you looked at what kinds of things kind of make people happy?
Yeah, so interesting. I mean, what we do is we, we don't really read in detail, what participants write about, largely because I kind of people tend to write about very, very personal things. And even data is all completely anonymous, and we don't know who the people are. Sometimes we it can feel a bit touristic to kind of really sit and read what people are writing about. So I actually kind of try not to do that too much. Although obviously, it is kind of important to have a quick look through to kind of ascertain kinds of things that people are writing about, it's a bit of a sense check to make sure that people are conforming to the instructions. But also, we also put the transcripts through a piece of software that we have called loop stands for linguistic inquiry and workout. And what we can do is you can basically tell us when people in the experimental condition, the condition where we're asking people to write immersively use more emotive language than people who are in the neutral condition. So we tend to have a neutral control condition. And this is kind of really important just in terms of a bit of a sense check for us to ensure that people are conforming to the instructions, but you know, just from having a quick eyeball is what people are writing about. People write about very, very, very thing. So, you know, some people do follow our kind of instruction around things that writing about a good book that I have read, you know, right through to very intense emotional experiences, a lot of people will write about things like, you know, their wedding day giving birth is a PICC line. So a lot of people will write about their children being born. And it's interesting because some people, even though we don't always ask people to do written benefit finding some of the positive writing studies, we sometimes find that people do write about positivity that's come out of adversity. And one was kind of narrative that kind of struck me, again, I didn't kind of read it in too much depth, but somebody wrote about having a cup of tea with their mother who had terminal cancer, and basically just saying, you know, mum had been really unwell and had been really horrible time. And I went round and dropped in a mum, we just had this cup of tea, we had this really nice china was one of the best conversations my mum have ever had. And it was just, you know, so it's interesting that the things that kind of, I guess, people find as as positively emotive as it is another interesting aspect of this.
Yeah, that's so fascinating. I wonder if there are individual differences in how willing people are to find positives in those negative situations? I wonder if that might be a future line of inquiry? Yeah.
I mean, I wonder exactly the same thing. So you know, it is something that where we're in a way, I mentioned that we've been looking at social inhibition, and that, that kind of question partially motivated our reason for measuring through submission in the first place. Because I was wondering whether socially inhibited individuals might be sort of more boost and reserved, but actually, we don't tend to find them, we tend to find that the effects are actually strongest for those individuals. So one of the key lines of future inquiry for me is to really try and unpick the individual differences, because we know from the written emotional disclosure work, that individual differences are important. And it's definitely a technique that doesn't work for everybody. I suspect that that's also the case here, because you know, some people are very put off by the idea of actually writing about their emotions at all, whether it's positive or negative, whatever you do, some people just don't feel comfortable doing that. And some people just don't want to do this. So you know, this is something we need to deal with in terms of, I guess, and this partially due to bias in our samples, because are we selecting people who, you know, inadvertently selected people who are really keen to do this kind of thing. But then even within the samples that we do have, can we find individual differences that might predict the extent to which people will actually engage with the tasks?
Yeah, definitely. Are there any other future lines of research that you're interested in following?
Yeah, so I've actually, we're working with a PhD student at the moment, Lauren Holt, who is, I think about a year and a bit into her PhD, and she's doing some really, really interesting work. At least from our perspective, it might not sound that interesting for people outside of our research team, but one of the things were really interested in is the control test that's used. I said, really exciting. And you're probably like, well, the control task isn't really that much of an exciting thing to investigate. But what the typical control task in this area is that we have people to write about an animal actively about a neutral topic. So we might ask them, for example, to describe the room that they're sitting in an anonymous active way. And we've had reviewers basically come at us on two fronts with this control task, one of which is that actually, it could be therapeutic to just write about something. So Monday, just the act of kind of writing about it and like being mindful. Yeah, exactly. Being mindful might be therapeutic. So that's exactly right. But also that while some people might find this really boring, and actually, are you really observing benefits from the positive, expressive writing? Or are you actually just seeing kind of the fact that people are bored and my Bashi become a bit moody, and distressed as a result of having to sort of write about something too boring and mundane? So we've actually had both of these things thrown out. So we're kind of looking at the control task, how we can improve it, what we actually used the control task, one of the things we're actually looking at is, rather than comparing expressive writing to kind of neutral writing task, actually comparing expressive writing to other well established interventions, which we know have some benefits in terms of improving mood both to say well actually is expressive writing any better than some of these better established techniques? So one of the things we're looking at at the moment is a guided imagery. Type paradigm well, so I'm not sure if you familiar with guided imagery, but this is really around, people listen to an audio and they just sort of set and quietly listen to an audio. And in our case, it's a walk through the forest. So basically they're being narrated to about a walk through the forest. And they listen to that audio, we're also to make it a bit kind of specific to writing, were getting them to listen to that audio, and then to kind of write about the experience of this imagined forest work that they've just been taken through. So this is a way of kind of trying to find a comparison that, I guess is a bit more akin to the kinds of things that we know work. And it can, either way it can enable us to answer questions around actually, is this positive, expressive writing thing really so good, that it stacks up compared to to kind of existing stress related interventions. So that's, that's one avenue. And also, as I've alluded to, we're really interested in the future to really get to grips in terms of the individual differences that might moderate these effects. So do certain personality characteristics, for example, determine a whether people will find enjoyment in the task, but also, you know, will it be more beneficial for them?
Those are those sound very interesting, and I look forward to hearing about them. So it is stress Awareness Month. And I wanted to talk a little bit about the impact of this work, what impact it's had so far that you'd like to talk about. And then also, if you can give our listeners maybe some tips and tricks for reducing the stress.
Yeah, okay. Sure. So, I mean, one of the things about this technique, which has been so beautiful to me is that it's so simple, I mean, out of most stress reduction techniques, I mean, yeah, their suggestions, such as you know, to go for a run, do some yoga, wherever, you know, this technique is so simple that pretty much most people could engage with it, it's so easy, so straightforward to carry out. And, you know, it could be taken anyway, you know, if somebody is feeling a bit stressed, sitting there waiting for a job interview, you know, they could take their phone out, take a pen and paper and kind of either do some expressive writing, you know, it's that mobile can be done anywhere, anytime it's convenient to the participant. So I think that's the potential impact. Here, the potential impact is around the fact that it's just so simple. Its simplicity really is so beneficial. And I can kind of see this as part of a wider kind of DIY toolkit for reducing day to day stress, you know, so, feeling a bit stressed with work or whatever, you know, get home from work, need to unwind. You know, some people might say, well do some yoga, some people might say, well, I'll go out for a run, you know, this could be another thing that people could use, if the weather's not great for a run, if they are feeling overly flexible and terrified, she thinks you're gonna, you know, this is just one other thing that he could do. So I think there's potential really, really good potential impacts with before COVID. myself and professor whether or went into a couple of workplaces and type the staff about this technique showed them the technique, and even some people who were a bit skeptical at first kind of came around and kind of engaged with it. And we've got some really positive feedback that people were continuing to use this technique after the workshop. So I do think there's potential impact there. And it's definitely something that we're interested in, in following up further.
Excellent. So can you just give our listeners one more time the concrete instructions for how to do positive expressive writing, if they're interested in trying out this technique?
Yeah, okay. Sure. So what you should do is you should find a quiet place, if possible, where you can kind of be relatively undisturbed for around 20 minutes, you should take out your phone, you should take a piece of paper, a diary, whatever works for you. And essentially, what you need to do is to write for approximately 20 minutes, don't worry about your spelling, don't worry about your grammar. Just basically write whatever comes into your mind about a positive experience that you've had. And just try and relive that experience as a relatively as possible in words. So I think that trying to really engage with it, be as immersive as possible is really important. And I think don't worry about what the thing is that you're writing about. So you know, even if you can't think of, you know, a really, truly amazing experience you've had this could be something as simple as having read a really good book, being kind of taken aback by a piece of art. You've seen a piece of music that you've listened to, you know, it could be a very kind of seemingly innocuous conversation that you've had that made you feel really positive about about yourself. So, yeah, give it a go. Here's what I would suggest. And you know, we do know that this doesn't work for everybody. So if you try it and you find that this doesn't work, you know, by all means go and do something else.
But thank you so much for those tips and tricks. Where can people find you online if they would like to follow your research?
Okay, so if you Google me, Michael Smith, Northumbria, you will find my profile that and you'll be able to link to all of the research that we've done from there. I'm also on Twitter at doctor 4 Smith. The number 4 Smith is my Twitter handle if you want to catch up with me on Twitter or drop me a message.
Excellent, and I'll include both those in the show notes. If you'd like to learn more about Northumbria psychology, check out our psychology department blog at Northumbria p s y.com. You can also follow us on Twitter at Northumbria PS y. If you want you can follow me on Twitter at Brown genavee to stay updated on episodes of the podcast. And if you'd like to be interviewed on the podcast or know someone who would please email me at Genavee.email@example.com Finally, if you'd like to podcast make sure to subscribe to our podcast on your listening app and give us a review and rating. I hope you've learned something on this voyage into the mind. Take care until next time