Writers have always known this, but writing every day can improve your physical and emotional health, and even make wounds heal faster. A variety of studies have found that just 20 minutes writing each day could change your life – for the better.
And you don’t even have to be any good at it.
The studies use what’s called ‘expressive writing’, which means writing about personal issues and life experiences. They show that 15 to 20 minutes writing can reduce stress levels, improve mood and mental health problems, and boost memory. Participants were also less likely to have a heart attack and had fewer visits to the doctor.
A study at Duke University showed that writing your story, and then rewriting it has dramatic effects too. College students who were struggling academically were encouraged to write about their experience, and rewrite it after considering that they just needed time to adjust to college life. Over the following year, the students who took part in the study improved their grade average and were less likely to drop out.
Editing your story to show a new perspective enables you to reframe your experience. Doing this can improve your attitude and help you to adjust to big life changes. It can also improve your relationships. Another study (pdf) encouraged married couples to write about their problems from the perspective of a neutral observer, and this helped them to find more positive solutions.
“The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go…. I think of expressive writing as a life course correction. It allows people to step back for a moment and evaluate their lives.” – Dr James Pennebaker
Write Your Way to Sanity
I use this kind of freeform expressive writing a lot. It’s a great way to clear out your mind and dredge the sludge from the bottom. Most of it is unpublishable, but that’s okay – it’s for your eyes only.
I wrote my way through a breakdown many years ago. Writing was something I had never done before, never kept a diary. It never occurred to me that I should record my experiences, but then my subconscious erupted and I couldn’t make sense of my life any more.
One day I simply began to write. I poured all my heartache, fear and confusion onto the page. Surprising twists and turns appeared out of nowhere. I found myself writing things I hadn’t realised I was thinking or feeling. New perspectives and ideas would suddenly appear in my mind. It was as if some part of me, deep down, knew what I needed and guided me to a solution.
It took years of processing and writing and writing. And rewriting, and going over and over the same ground. But eventually my new perspectives took hold and my mind began to transform. I exorcised my demons (some of them!), or they morphed into new angelic forms.
Writing transformed a breakdown into a breakthrough.
So I know this works.
Do It Yourself
If you’d like to benefit from this process, find a quiet moment in the day where you can sit down, undisturbed, and write for 15 to 20 minutes. You can write for longer if you wish. I used to just write until I was spent. When your allotted time is up, if you still feel there’s more to say – keep going – but don’t dwell on things or brood. If you find yourself going round in circles and repeating yourself, it’s probably a sign to stop and try again tomorrow.
Circling around an issue and harping on how bad things are or how wounded you are, is usually a sign that there’s something else you’re not looking at. You’ll need to take a step back (and a deep breath) and dive further into the depths. A good technique I found useful when I got stuck, was to ask why.
I feel so angry. …Why?
Because so-and-so betrayed me. …Why?
I don’t know, maybe he’s a *$@*! …Why?
Maybe his mother didn’t love him enough. …Why?
Maybe she was struggling with her own problems. …Why?
Because nobody noticed she was sad, because she hid her true feelings. …Why?
Because she was scared people would think she was weak. …Why?
Because she thought she was weak. …Why?
Because she hated herself. …Why?
…Hang on, this is about me, isn’t it? I betrayed myself by hiding my true feelings….
And so on… you get the idea.
Writing in this way can’t solve all your problems, but it can help to put things into perspective. Changing your personal narrative helps you to change your view of yourself and the world. It’s a way to tell yourself the truth about what you’re feeling and what’s really going on. You can identify obstacles, come up with solutions, and move into a more optimistic frame of mind.
Have you written yourself out of a crisis? Share your story below…