The electric pace of the twenty-first century, coupled with constant ding ding dings from our personal devices, leaves most of us looking for new ways to de-stress. For the past thirty years or so, studies have shown that writing for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day, as a personal exercise, can help us cope with different kinds of intense pressures in our lives, such as healing from past trauma, or navigating a current difficult situation.
Jotting thoughts down as a regular ritual has been shown to aid those with serious disorders and substance dependencies. For example, 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, 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 patients in a residential Connecticut facility; the final clinical 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 chronicling personal episodes in one’s life, is something that humans have done for hundreds of years. But a major difference between tending a casual diary and writing for the purpose of psychic and physical wellness is the latter requires us to grapple truthfully with painful problems and issues, past or present.
I know how gutwrenching the process is; many years ago, in a graduate course taught by a well-known psychiatrist, I had to write a long paper that related a past trauma, and reframed the event in a new light in order to heal from it. It was deeply distressing to describe something terrifying that had happened to me as a teenager in such detail — my psyche had to live through it all over again, acknowledging shadowy specifics that haunted me like ghosts. But the professor coached us through, and in the end, I felt I’d benefitted from the assignment.
So how does one begin? 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 consciously writing to wellness is that is a low-cost endeavor: you need the desire to do it; something to write with or on; and a dedicated 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 to vitality. Write to wellness. Write.
Originally published at medium.com