The electric pace of the twenty-first century coupled with the constant ding ding dings from our personal devices leave most of us looking for new ways to de-stress. Since the mid-1980’s, studies show that writing for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes as a daily personal exercise can help us cope with different kinds of stressful pressures in our lives, such as healing from past trauma, or navigating a current bothersome situation.
Writing encourages us to think through major and minor things issues. Jotting thoughts down each day has been shown to aid those with serious disorders and substance dependencies. In the 2014 study “Expressive Writing as a Therapeutic Process for Drug Dependent Women” by Drs. Sarah Meshburg-Cohen, Dace Svikis and Thomas James MacMahon, daily writing improved the lives of women struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Use Disorder. This project, based on the Expressive Emotions Therapy work of Dr. James Pennebaker, followed 149 women in a residential Connecticut facility; the clinical trial results showed that a regular writing process helped to relieve depression and anxiety, and eased the actual disclosure of traumatic experiences. In a newer study from 2015, Expressive Writing was found to help with post-partum depression.
Writing in a diary, with a focus on the personal or “journaling,” is something that humans have done for hundreds of years. But one major difference between casual diary writing and writing towards psychic and physical wellness is the latter requires a direct attempt to grapple truthfully with painful problems and issues, past or present. You have to write about memories you might have worked hard to suppress.
I understand how gutwrenching the process is; many years ago, in a graduate course taught by a well-known psychoanalyst, I had to write a long paper that related a past personal trauma, and to reframe it in a new light in an effort to heal. It was deeply distressing to describe something terrifying that had happened to me as a teenager in great detail — my psyche had to live through it all over again, acknowledging specifics that haunted me like ghosts. It was a group experience that involved targeted violence. I’m still close to someone who went through it all with me. As part of writing the paper years later, I did not write every day, but often and only in short spurts, because it was hard to face it. But by the end of the semester, I felt I had benefited from re-examining the experience from an adult perspective; I also found new respect for the power of resilience.
So how does one begin? Start with what’s bugging you. Do you have a stressful situation at work? In Pennebaker’s and John Evan’s book Expressive Writing, Words That Heal, they advise: “The emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing.”
Another advantage to writing for your well-being is that is a low-cost endeavor: you need the desire to do it; something to write with or on; and a slot of twenty minutes or so a day.
Write this way for weeks, for months, for years, if needed. Write until you feel better, until you applaud things about yourself that you might not have appreciated before: write to celebrate your own resilience. Write towards your own vitality. Write to wellness.
Originally published at medium.com