Going through life, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Work, relationships, daily stressors, societal pressures, expectations, traumatic experiences – they can take a serious toll on our well-being. There are many useful tools and strategies people can use to help cope with this overwhelm, all of which are dependent on each person’s individual needs. One of these tools is writing. Writing is a tool we can all add to our toolkits. It’s an accessible practice that allows us to be reflective and reflexive, helping us develop greater understanding of the self, the world, and the self-in-the-world (Thompson, 2011). It allows us the space to think about, ponder, and explore what we are experiencing internally and externally, while also integrating and using the awareness gained from this process of reflecting.
James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas, was the first to study the benefits of writing as a healing tool (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986) and found that writing about a particularly distressing or traumatic event improved both physical and emotional well-being. Since then, there have been copious research studies reporting that emotional writing improves people’s physical and mental health (Siegel-Acevedo, 2021). Writing about a particular event, but also about the emotions and meaning attached to this particular event, are needed in order to feel these affects.
Think about this practice in your own life. What would it look like to incorporate 10-15 minutes of writing per day? Or perhaps you use writing as a tool when you have something particular on your mind that you want to process. It may be a complementary practice to sessions in therapy or visits with a friend. One of the positives of writing is that it’s completely confidential and between yourself and the page. Some people find solace and connection in sharing their struggles with another person (i.e., a trusted friend or family member, or a professional), while others may have parts of themselves that they aren’t ready to share with another person. Writing is a private, accessible, and beneficial way to gain a sense of clarity and reprieve, similar to what sharing with another person tends to bring.
It may seem counterintuitive for positive outcomes to come from writing about negative experiences, but this practice helps to link our emotions to an event. Writing allows the freedom of expressing concrete, authentic, and explicit detail about our experiences. It helps the writer tell a complete, complex, coherent story, with a beginning, middle, and end (Siegel-Acevedo, 2021).
Writing is a way for people to be close and intimate with their thoughts, experiences, and emotions, while also relieving their minds of the rumination and discomfort that accompanies these parts of ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, it gives us perspective and separation from what we are experiencing. When we write, we are able to look at our emotions and work through what they may be telling us. They are no longer attached to us, but are in front of us on the page. Writing helps us to reclaim our lives and gain a sense of agency.
Regardless of how you choose to incorporate writing into your life – whether it’s journaling, free-writing, poetry, creative non-fiction, bullet-journaling – as long as you are giving space for the emotions and meaning attached to your experience, there will likely be reprieve, clarity, and awareness gained from this practice. I encourage you to try it.
“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” – Graham Greene, Ways of Escape
Thompson, K. (2011). Therapeutic Journal Writing: An Introduction for Professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 95, 274-281.
Siegel-Acevedo, D. (2021). Writing can help us heal from trauma. Harvard Business Review.
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