I write all the time but I know that for many, writing isn't something that comes naturally. I am happy to say, however, that many frogs...and of course humans...are getting into the habit of journaling. Some folks journal when their happy while some journal every day. Then their are those who put pen to paper only when they're feeling low. Writing down our negative thought and feelings is a process known as expressive writing. And, it turns out, is very, very helpful! This has been the subject of many studies over the past 30 years. Expressive writing authors Pennebaker and Smyth have written extensively on this subject showing it's benefits and how to make it work for you. When you feel stuck, for whatever reason, getting all those painful thoughts and feelings from out of your head and onto paper, can allow the healing process to begin. Writing is very therapeutic. I should know!
Expressive writing needn't be difficult. The basic idea is to write continuously for 20 minutes about your deepest thoughts and emotions surrounding whatever the difficult challenge is in your life. When you write, let it all out. Really try to explore the "event' and how it has affected you. Can you tie it to something from your childhood, relationship to your parents or other people you love? Does it tie into your career? The best way to do this exercise is to allow plenty of quiet time and space to allow those words and emotions to really flow. The goal, no matter what is troubling you and making you feel stuck, is to gain new insights and connections to other feelings. This isn't just about putting words on paper. For this exercise to truly be beneficial, you need to take a deep dive into some places that'd you'd probably prefer not to revisit. But revisit them you must, if you want to learn and grow from your current problem.
Although researchers say say writing for 20 minutes is optimal, they all agreed that even writing for just a few minutes can be beneficial. Some evidence, by no means conclusive, shows that those individuals who tend to keep things in...bottled up...and those folks who have the least opportunity to talk about their feelings, are the one who will benefit the most from expressive witing. Research has also shown that expressive writing about a very recent, or ongoing, traumatic event might not be effective. The best guide here is, if writing feels like the right thing to do, then do it.
Writing about something troublesome; fear, anger, sadness...isn't the most pleasant way to spend 20 minutes of your life so why bother to do it? In several, recent studies researchers have shown those who to participated in expressive writing about traumatic events for four consecutive days, as opposed to those who wrote about superficial things, felt a greater sense of meaning afterwards and, six weeks later, had better immune system function. In the six months following the experiment, the expressive writers had fewer doctors visits than the other group. It appears, then, that expressive writing helps to buffer the detrimental effects of stress and rumination.
Expressive writing can also help you to get another job. One study showed that engineers who had recently gotten laid off, wrote about their thoughts and feelings surrounding the layoff. Seven months later, more than half of them had found new positions...three times as many as those who wrote about other things, or didn't write at all! It's interesting to note here that the engineers in each group had roughly the same number of interviews. The expressive writing engineers said they felt better adjusted and had moved past their anger quicker, thus allowing them to feel more confident at their interviews. Expressive writing can be useful for almost any life-changing event...such as retiring or even going off to college.
The most exciting benefits of expressive writing may be for people who suffer from mental health issues or chronic disease. According to one study, those suffering from depression saw improvements in their mental health after only one month of trying this practice. There is some evidence that shows expressive writing can be beneficial for those suffering from PTSD. Expressive writing can be helpful (bringing a little relief) to those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, fibromyalgia, and even irritable bowel syndrome. Too, it can help people to lower their high blood pressure, boost immune function for those with HIV, and improve quality of life for cancer and heart attack patients. So how does expressive writing work?
Reearchers aren't 100% sure, but it appears that there's something powerful that happens when we translate our experiences into words...and not keeping them buried deep inside. It is also believed that getting negative thoughts out of our heads, keeps them from rattling around where they tend to resurface and demand our attention. Once they're "out in the open" we can see them for what they are and begin the work of healing the wounds.
It has been said that when we put our thoughts and feelings down on paper, we're not just transferring them, we are also transforming them. Writing forces us to arrange our thoughts into sequence, one after another. Over time, themes and patterns start to emerge. New insights bubble to the surface. And here's another interesting tidbit of helpful information; Those expressive writers who use an increasing number of cognitive words, i.e., effect, reason, realize, know - in successive writing sessions achieved the most benefit from their exercise. Words are indeed powerful.
It's always best to share our thoughts and feelings with the ones we love and trust. But sometimes that isn't possible. In those cases, expressive writing can help pull us out of the doldrums and move us to a new place that is filled with happiness, peace, and a greater sense of self.
I'm feeling better already!