What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional and psychic wholeness?…What if writing were as important…to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose and some soul-satisfying practice?
~Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing, p. 6
I’ve asked my clients what’s most often on their minds when they wake up worrying in the middle of the night. They name a number of things. Which one concern do you think just about every one of them names?
Health. I worry about my own health. Or the health of someone I care about.
I get that. In fact, I would say the very same thing. No one wants to be disabled by chronic health problems, or have their life shortened by preventable illness. There’s any number of things we can do as a useful response to this concern. If I asked you to brainstorm a list of those ideas, you might include: Nutritious eating. Exercise. Massage. Meditation. Taking time off. Getting preventive medical and dental care.
What do you think about adding writing to that list? Writing – a very specific type of writing – is a very practical strategy for increasing our health, happiness and well being. Writing is do-able. And the right kind of writing has been shown to benefit health and well being.
Here are four great reasons to write:
1. You don’t need any special skills or experience, though as you write more, you’re likely to get better at it.
2. Writing is private. Or, if you are sure it will be beneficial, you can share your writing with a trusted colleague, friend or professional.
3. It costs very little. You don’t need any special equipment. Gather up some paper, a notebook and favorite pen. Or use a computer or mobile device.
4. Even busy people can write. Writing is beneficial whether you write during the moments you can find during the day, or set aside 20 minutes several days (or more) each week. And you can write pretty much anywhere.
So writing is a practical, flexible, low-cost thing that pretty much anyone can do. The next question is “How can writing improve health and well-being?” Check out these compelling reasons to make writing part of your self-care routine.
1. Writing helps you move forward after difficult experiences. Pretty much all of us have had difficult or emotionally disruptive events and many of us have experienced traumas – events that threaten our safety or even our lives. If we don’t tell the story of the event and express the feelings related to it, the effort of guarding against the memories and feelings acts an ongoing stressor that gradually erodes our ability to cope. When we write in a specific way about the event, and express past and current feelings about it, we link thinking and feeling, allowing us integrate the experience.
2. Writing is beneficial for body and mind. Psychologist and researcher James W. Pennebaker, and others have studied expressive writing for over thirty years. They’ve learned that expressive writing (also known as the Pennebaker Paradigm) reduces physician visits by 50%. It improves immune functioning, reduces markers of chronic health problems and decreases physiological signs of stress, improves mood, positive thoughts and signs of mental health. Expressive writing can lead to positive behavioral changes. Laid-off workers are more likely to find new employment, academic and work performance improve, there is reduced absenteeism from work and improved social relationships. More recent research in positive psychology is building evidence for certain writing approaches that increase happiness, positive mood and well-being.
It’s not just any kind of writing that makes a difference. As one of my clients noted, writing in an unstructured way doesn’t always help. It can be exhausting and can stir up difficult feelings without integrating, resolving or moving forward. That said, if you like to journal and keep a record of daily events, go for it!
We can use structured prompts to gain the benefits described here. These prompts have us write in a way that links a detailed story about a past event to our past and current feelings about that event. It’s also important to avoid ruminating, or staying stuck. Writing the same negative thoughts and feelings over and over can have negative effects.
Expressive writing provides structured prompts so that we tell the story of a disruptive past event, fully express the related feelings, take different perspectives about it, and find meaning or possibly even benefits from the experience and identify how we will move forward. This are the things that make writing a way of promoting health and well-being.
Other forms of writing – transactional writing, poetic writing, affirmative writing and legacy writing – can explore past events as well, and can also tap into our deepest values, beliefs and feelings to help us reconnect with what matters most in life – caring relationships, core purpose and clear vision.
Here’s a transactional writing exercise to try, if it seems like it would be a useful strategy for you. Write a letter of forgiveness. Remember that this letter is for *you,* not for the other person. Writing this letter doesn’t necessarily mean restoring a relationship or condoning a behavior by someone who wronged you. Sonya Lyobomirsky reports that forgiveness can decrease anxiety and increase self-esteem and feelings of hope. Here two ideas that Lyobomirsky offers for forgiveness letters. One is to write a letter seeking forgiveness, as this kind of writing can shift our perspective and help us come to a new understanding of how forgiving others can be beneficial. The other is to write a letter forgiving someone else for a transgression against us.
1.Write a letter asking for forgiveness. Remember that this letter is for you, not necessarily to send. It is the writing itself that is beneficial. Sharing the letter may be risky, or just may not be possible. It may be best to keep it private. While you may be keeping the letter private, do your best to write it in letter format, using grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary and sentence structure that would help the reader understand your message. Describe what you’ve done, or not done and how this action or lack of action harmed the other person. Apologize for the action, or describe your wish to repair the relationship or somehow “repay” the person who was wronged.
2. Write a letter of forgiveness. This letter involves letting go of negative feelings such as bitterness or blame, by writing but not sending, a letter of forgiveness to someone who has hurt or wronged you. As above, as much as you can format the letter and choose language that helps you clearly communicate to the person you’re writing to. Describe clearly and in detail what was done that harmed or offended you. Be clear about how you were affected then and how it still affects you. End with a statement of forgiveness and understanding. If you feel blocked about writing this letter, don’t force it. It may feel like what happened is to terrible to forgive. You may be able to write the letter a few days or weeks from now. But if not, choose an experience that is easier to forgive and try writing about that one.
For guidance and company with writing to improve your health, happiness and well-being, join my upcoming online workshop, The Write Way to Well-Being. Save your spot now! The workshop starts on 3/22/16.
DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a way of healing. How telling our stories transforms our lives. Boston: Beacon Press.
Lyubimirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness. A new approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Books.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. Expressive writing: words that heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor