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 recently asked my clients what’s most often on their minds when they wake up worrying about something in the middle of the night. Which one concern do you think just about every one of them named?
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. No one wants to contemplate a loved one suffering from illness or injury.
There’s any number of things we can do in response to this concern. What if I told you that writing is one of the best things we can do for our emotional and physical health?
That is, a very specific type of writing, pioneered by James Pennebaker in the 198s’s and further studied since by him and his colleagues. Expressive writing is a very practical strategy shown to strengthen resilience and 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?”
- 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.
- 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, absenteeism from work is reduced and social relationships improve. Recent research in positive psychology is building evidence for additional writing approaches that increase happiness, positive mood and well-being.
Among those additional forms of writing are transactional writing, poetic writing, affirmative writing and legacy writing. These all can explore past events, and can tap into our deepest values, beliefs and feelings to help us reconnect with what matters most in life.*
A transactional writing exercise to try
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 thinking that what the other person did is okay.Forgiveness can decrease anxiety and strengthen self-esteem and feelings of hope (Lyobimirsky, 2007). Here two ideas that Lyobomirsky offers for forgiveness letters.
One of her prompts guides us in writing a letter seeking forgiveness, as this kind of writing can shift our perspective on something we wish to forgive ourselves for. This can help us come to a new understanding of how we might forgive others. The other prompt helps us to write a letter forgiving someone else for a transgression against us.
A letter asking for forgiveness
Remember that this letter is for you, and is not necessarily one that you should send to someone. It is the writing itself that is beneficial. Sharing the letter with someone else may be risky, or just may not be possible. 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 imagined 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 “make things right” for the person who was wronged.
A letter offering forgiveness
As you write this letter you will be letting go of negative feelings such as bitterness or blame. You’ll do this by writing but not sending, a letter of forgiveness to someone who has hurt or wronged you. As above, format the letter for clarity and use language that helps you communicate to the person you imagine writing to. Describe 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 too terrible to entirely forgive. See if you can let go of even some of the negative feelings you’ve been carrying. 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.
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. (2014). Expressive writing: words that heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor
*My e-book, Writing for Well-Being:Guide and Workbook offers additional ideas and writing prompts.