How to Heal Yourself from Emotional Upheaval through Writing

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Are you dealing with an emotionally difficult situation, like the loss of a relationship or stress on the job?

Try writing about it, says Dr. James W. Pennebaker. Your immune system may be strengthened, you may start sleeping better, and you may increase your social connections, among other positive improvements.

“When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” says Dr. Pennebaker. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them.”

Dr. Pennebaker is a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. He is a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a path to healing, and he is the author of Opening Up and Writing to Heal.  

“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives,” Dr. Pennebaker says. “You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are — our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing helps us focus and organize the experience.”

Why introverts write

Writing isn’t just for introverts, but many introverts enjoy writing because it’s a solitary activity, and it allows them to delve into their inner world of thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

“Writing is something you do alone,” writes John Green, the author of the award-winning novel The Fault in Our Stars. “It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”

“Writing is utter solitude,” writes novelist Franz Kafka, “the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.”

Why it works

Our minds are designed to make sense of our experiences, and when we undergo a traumatic event, our minds have to work overtime to process what happened to us.  These thoughts may keep us awake at night, we may become distracted at work, or we may feel less connected to our friends, family, or significant other. Writing about a difficult experience forces us to translate it into words, making it easier for our minds to grasp that experience.

Other health benefits of writing

Writing has other health benefits, too. It may help our working memory improve, which is basically the ability to think about more than one thing at a time. As we release our thoughts and emotions through writing, we may be able to focus on other people afterward, which will improve our relationships.

It’s not just Dr. Pennebaker who has documented the healing benefits of writing. A study on the emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing found that participants who wrote about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events for just 15–20 minutes on 3–5 occasions showed improvements in both physical and psychological health.

Writing may even make physical wounds heal faster. In one study, 49 healthy adults aged 64-97 years old wrote about either upsetting events or neutral daily activities for 20 minutes, three days in a row. Researchers then waited two weeks, to make sure any negative feelings stirred up by recalling stressful events had passed, and biopsied the subjects’ arms. They used photographs to track the patients’ healing over 21 days. On the 11th day, 76 percent of the group that did expressive writing about upsetting events had fully healed as compared with 42 percent of the control group, which wrote about neutral activities.

“We think writing about distressing events helped participants make sense of the events and reduce distress,” says Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and co-author of the study.

Don’t overdo it

But be careful not to overdo it, warns Dr. Pennebaker.

“I’m not convinced that having people write every day is a good idea,” he says. “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Also, don’t write about traumatic events that have happened recently, or write about more than you think you can handle at the moment. The effects of expressive writing can be powerful.

The biggest payoff

What kind of writing was related to the biggest healing payoff? Writing that transformed the messy thoughts, feelings, and events of the emotional upheaval into story form.

“People who are able to construct a story, to build some kind of narrative over the course of their writing seem to benefit more than those who don’t,” Pennebaker says. “In other words, if on the first day of writing, people’s stories are not very structured or coherent, but over the three or four days they are able to come up with a more structured story, they seem to benefit the most.”

Telling the story from someone else’s perspective also was related to healing:

“So one day they may be talking about how they feel and how they see it,” Dr. Pennebaker says, “but the next day they may talk about what’s going on with others, whether it’s their family or a perpetrator or someone else. Being able to switch back and forth [among other people’s perspectives] is a very powerful indicator of how they progress.”

Dr. Pennebaker’s writing assignment

Over the next four days, write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the emotional upheaval. In your writing, really let go and and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. Write continuously for 20 minutes.

More writing tips

  • Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed.
  • Write continuously for at least 20 minutes.
  • Don’t worry about spelling and grammar.
  • Write only for yourself.
  • Write about something personal and important to you.
  • Deal only with events or situations you can handle now.

I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame. Alice Walker

Sources: Writing to Heal, Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing, and Writing Can Help Injuries Heal Faster

Image Credit: Deviant Art


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