The Resilient Way – Write About it
Bad news, bad memories, feeling upset? Then, write about it! Why? Because this is the resilient way to cope that not only improves your psychological, emotional health but your physical health too!
Last year I had bad news about a medical diagnosis. Initially I felt confused and helpless as I waited to receive test results and a prognosis. Thankfully, I had already learned the benefits of expressive writing and so I put pen to paper (or text on screen) and chose the ‘Resilient Way’.
Research carried out by Professor James Pennebaker has shown that writing about our challenges and difficulties can bring positive outcomes. In a study in the early 80s, he asked participants to spend 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days, writing about a traumatic or upsetting event they had experienced. A control group followed the same instructions, but they were asked to write about something neutral that held no emotional attachment.
Six months later, when the participants were interviewed it was revealed that those who had written about their harrowing experiences had made significantly less visits to see a doctor, suggesting that they had enjoyed better health than the control group.
Many more studies have been conducted since and there is much evidence to show a link between expressive writing and good immune function. For example, those who write about how they felt during a negative event (rather than just describe what happened) were shown to heal faster from physical wounds.
Pennebaker also demonstrated that participants in his study had greater long-term psychological health, they reported suffering from less anxiety and fewer depressive and intrusive thoughts.
Making Sense of Things
It might be imagined that the benefits of writing come from the emotional catharsis, ‘getting things off one’s chest’ but Pennebaker demonstrated that putting things in writing helped people to construct a narrative or story of past events. It provided them with greater clarity, perspective and understanding of their personal history.
It Doesn’t Always Feel Good!
Sometimes writing brings back strong memories and emotions and it may feel uncomfortable and upsetting. Some of the participants in Pennebaker’s study cried during the process but interestingly, most chose to continue rather than resign from the study. There is no evidence that this leads to any long-term negative effect and most people reported positive outcomes overall.
How to do it
If you want to try this for yourself, it is easy to do. You might like to try writing for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Spelling, handwriting, grammar and such are irrelevant. What is important is that you express your deepest thoughts and feelings. What you write is intended to be confidential and you can even destroy it immediately afterwards. If you decide to hang on to your work you might choose to read it at a later date and notice if some of your views, beliefs and feelings have changed.
Want to Dig Deeper
There is much written on this subject and a search on the internet for ‘expressive writing’ will bring up many results.
If you want to learn more about Pennebaker’s work. Below are links to the original paper described in this article and his book that provides information and practical instructions of the expressive writing process.
Research Paper – Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. By Pennebaker, James W.,Beall, Sandra K. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 95(3), Aug 1986, 274-281
Book – ‘Opening Up By Writing it Down’ How Expressive Writing Improves health and Eases Emotional Pain
My Personal Experience
Writing about my health issues has been hugely beneficial for me in many ways. It helps me express my fears and doubts without upsetting or putting them into the minds of others. As a result, I’ve been able to reflect on my reactions and process them in a way that makes me feel less of a victim and more in control of my future.
Writing also serves a great distraction, rather than worry and risk making myself feel anxious, I write my thoughts down. In addition to the expressive writing exercise, I keep a diary of events and note important dates, which might be helpful in the future. It is very interesting to look back and see how my thoughts and feelings have changed to more positive ones over time.
In addition to these benefits, the knowledge that I may also be improving my immune function to support my health is reassuring too. When new challenges come along, as they surely will for all of us. I am confident that expressive writing will help and that this is ‘The Resilient Way’ to cope.