The electric pace of the twenty-first century coupled with the constant ding ding dings from our personal devices leave most of us looking for new ways to de-stress. Since the mid-1980’s, studies have shown that writing for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes as a daily personal exercise can help us cope with different kinds of pressures in our lives, such as healing from past trauma, or navigating a current bothersome situation.
It can work with major or minor problems. Jotting thoughts down each day has been shown to aid those with serious disorders and substance dependencies. For example, in the 2014 study “Expressive Writing as a Therapeutic Process for Drug Dependent Women” by Drs. Sarah Meshburg-Cohen, Dace Svikis and Thomas James MacMahon, writing improved the lives of those struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Use Disorder. This project, based on the Expressive Emotions Therapy work of Dr. James Pennebaker, followed 149 women in a residential Connecticut facility; the clinical trial results showed that a regular writing process helped to relieve depression and anxiety, and eased the actual disclosure of traumatic experiences. In a newer study from 2015, Expressive Writing was found to help with post-partum depression.
Writing in a diary, with a focus on the personal, is something that humans have done for hundreds of years. But one major difference between casual diary writing and writing for the purpose of relieving stress is the latter requires a direct attempt to grapple truthfully with painful problems or annoying issues, past or present.
I understand how gutwrenching it is to write to work through trauma; many years ago, in a graduate course taught by a well-known psychoanalyst, I had to write a long paper that related a past personal trauma, in order to reframe the event in a new light in an attempt to heal the psyche. It was deeply distressing to describe something so terrifying that had happened when I as a teenager — my psyche had to live through it all over again, acknowledging specifics that haunted me like ghosts. This particular case involved a collective violence that affected a group I’d been part of. Trying to make sense of it in retrospect, I did write about it nearly every day in preparation for writing the paper. I did not enjoy the process, but upon completing it, I came to a new level of gratitude for having survived the traumatic experience, and understood that it took a certain personal strength to do that.
So how does one begin? In Pennebaker’s and John Evan’s book Expressive Writing, Words That Heal, they advise: “The emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing.”
Another advantage to consciously writing for stress relief and psychic wellness is that is a low-cost endeavor: you need the desire to do it; something to write with or on; and a slot of twenty minutes or so a day. Write this way for weeks, for months, even years, if it helps. Write until you feel better, until you applaud things about yourself that you might not have appreciated before: write to celebrate your own resilience. Write to vitality. Write to wellness.
Originally published at medium.com