This column will change your life: Sealing off worries

'Closure" is one of those words of purest psychologese – unadulterated therapy-speak – that renders certain people extremely annoyed. Tell a friend, especially a British one, that you're seeking closure from some romantic tribulation, and you're liable to find him or her seeking swift closure to the conversation. (It hardly helps that a "reformed pimp and hustler" calling himself Big Boom has written a self-help book entitled If You Want Closure In Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs.) But in a just-published study, Xiuping Li and her colleagues at Singapore's National University put this aggravating metaphor to a literal test. By physically closing off some representation of their troubles, could people achieve emotional closure, too?

This is an old notion, surfacing in the idea of the "worry jar", designed to hold scraps of paper detailing one's worries, thus putting them out of mind, but it suffers from unhelpful new agey associations. "A God Jar is anything you wish it to be, in which you can put your wishes, dreams, problems, prayers," sighs Julia Cameron, dreamily detailing a related technique in her book on creativity, The Vein Of Gold. "You may want to think of it as a spiritual mailbox." Indeed you may. What Li et al did, by contrast, was to ask subjects to write down a decision they regretted, then seal it in an ordinary envelope. A control group did the writing, but not the sealing; afterwards, the envelope-sealers felt far less negative about the regret. (The experiment thus isolated the "sealing-off" effect, distinct from the proven benefits of writing.) Follow-up studies established that the mood boost didn't come from sealing any old words, nor from doing other things with written-down worries. It worked, too, with disturbing news clippings, causing their details to fade from memory. "An effective way to relieve distress," Li says, in undreamy language, "may be for the distressed person to seal an object related to his or her emotions in a package."

Precisely what's happening is unclear. Li implies it's that the worries have been put, metaphorically, "out of reach". I'd suggest it's that they're being metaphorically "kept safe", for future reference, since part of worry's relentless force seems to come from the fear of forgetting the subject of the worry. That's surely why making lists feels uplifting even before you've started the tasks concerned. What matters, though, is that the metaphorical force of the "sealing off" seemed to cause a measurable effect on mood.

Metaphors permeate our emotional lives so deeply that "permeate" might be the wrong word; from one perspective, they're what those lives consist of, and bad ones land us in trouble. "The work of psychotherapy," notes the psychologist Noam Shpancer, "often involves an attempt to replace faulty metaphors." Or as Freud put it, with what sounds rather like false modesty: "Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious."

We tend to divide self-help and happiness techniques into "scientifically proven" ones versus dodgy folk wisdom and superstition. But studies such as Li's show that the distinction, where emotions are concerned, is tenuous at best, because metaphors, from worry jars to religious rituals of burning or cleansing, exert real force. To call this the placebo effect risks sidelining it absurdly. Rather – to deploy a couple more metaphors – it may be the foundation stone, the bottom line, of our psyches.

• This article was edited on 11 October 2010. The original featured a quote from the article ('This is an old notion, surfacing in the idea of the "worry jar" ') in the strapline, which the author felt did not properly explain the piece. This has been amended.

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