Thursday, February 24, 2011

Four Benefits of Expressive Writing

Any experienced journal keeper will tell you that writing makes life better. Now we know that it can also make you healthier. Here are four expressive writing outcomes that serve to reduce stress and produce other life-enhancing benefits.

A calmer mind. We’ve all had times when the same chain of thoughts runs through our head, distracting us from business at hand and more productive considerations. Zen practitioners often refer to this condition as “monkey mind.” The thoughts run on, and on, looping endlessly without much change, causing stress, unhappiness and other ill effects. One of the classic cures for monkey mind is meditation. That could take decades of practice. A simple alternative is to write down the emotions associated with the looping thoughts and images. The combination of labeling and writing will activate the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with voluntary control.

Defuse strong emotions. Many people find great relief in writing when feelings of rage, fear, grief, or confusion threaten to overwhelm them. Conscious awareness of feelings and emotions defuses much of the obsessive thinking and allows the opportunity to make deliberate decisions about how to interpret them and respond.

Enhance interpersonal communication. Expressive writing is a valuable adjunct to communication with others, whether written or spoken. People who are in touch with their beliefs, values and have deeper understanding and are more focused. They are better prepared to communicate openly and freely without getting bogged down in defensiveness or uncertainty. All forms of life writing contribute to this type of insight and self-awareness.

Make thinking visible. Writing make thinking visible and durable. Transferring emotions and  feelings to the page renders them visible, still and enduring. It gets them out in the light where you can pin them down and process them. Once you get them to hold still, you can organize and arrange them, perhaps even alter them. As you explore the visible collection of words, interesting things begin to happen. You begin to discover unexpected relationships and connections between various thoughts and memories that you may never notice of otherwise. Maybe you find some unexpected connection among a set of seemingly unrelated ideas. These connections broaden the scope of your understanding, expand your options, and generally increase your problem-solving abilities.

These new connections are the bones from which new stories grow. Stories are believed to be a key component in the reason that writing benefits health. As Pennebaker explains, stories are the way we organize our experience and make sense of the world. It’s almost impossible to think without invoking story. We tell them to ourselves to explain what happens, or how to make things happen. We tell them to other people to explain things. They may be as simple as telling the teacher the dog ate our homework, or as elaborate as a Tolstoy novel, but stories they are.

Write now: make a list of benefits you've noticed lately after a journal writing session. If you don't keep a journal, spend 15 or 20 minutes writing about a recurring thought that irritates you. Then be aware of shifts in your thinking.

Image: River Beach

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