Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Find that Silver Lining

One key to unlocking health benefits from writing is to explore multiple points of view to find hidden benefits in upsetting or dismal circumstances. While this may seem intuitively true, as is increasingly the case, empirical evidence backs up common sense. A 2003 study by Campbell and Pennebaker found a correlation between the use of pronouns and subsequent frequency of doctor visits by research subjects. Pronoun use is an indicator of varying points of view, and subjects who explored more points of view had fewer doctor visits.

These are not isolated results. The Internet is rife with references to a connection between an optimistic point of view and improved health. Martin Seligman wrote a whole book, Learned Optimism to help people learn to adopt an optimistic point of view. While he wasn’t specifically studying the effect of writing, his recommendations can certainly be put to good use in expressive writing.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why Write?

Why write about troubling things? Wouldn’t it do just as well to talk about them — or just forget them? After all, you can’t change the past. It’s the future that matters!

This is a common question, and an important one. The short answer is that talking can be as good as writing, ideally even better, but there is a caveat. First let’s back up and look at the reason it’s important to address troubling things in the past:

Although a few psychotherapists had begun using journaling in their practices by 1970, systematic research on the healthful benefits of writing did not begin until 1986 when James Pennebaker and Sandra Beall published results of a ground-breaking research study intended to discover whether writing about traumatic experiences for twenty minutes on each of four days could bring about catharsis as effectively as talking about it. Indeed it did, and among the measures they used were physical and emotional health indicators. Over time this became one of the most commonly replicated studies around. More than two hundred variations have been conducted since then to support and amplify the initial findings.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Message from Niigata

Today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed a touching letter from Bob Mueller. For 13 year’s Bob’s daughter, Bethany Iyobe, has lived with her husband and two children in Niigata, Japan, 130 miles from Sendai. She emailed her family on Thursday, nearly a week after the March 11 earthquake, with a description of the situation in her area. I was moved to tears by her account, and Bob gave me permission to repeat her words as an example of the power of sharing positive emotions.

“It is totally inspiring to see how the people around me are responding… I can’t even begin to describe the mood. It is like rallying around a cause or rooting for your team or donating an organ or risking your life to save someone or all of these together and you can practically taste it in the air… .

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Inner Critic Questions Writing for Health

Despite their reputations as stone walls for writers, inner critics are not inherently evil and don’t deserve a death sentence. When we learn how to listen to them, they can give us valuable guidance. As I sat with my journal, recording thoughts about this blog, the book on this topic I’m refining, and the whole subject of writing for the health of it, I was assailed by burning questions: “Why am I doing this? Why am I working so hard? What on earth difference does it really make?”

Even though these questions were phrased in first person, I recognized the voice of my Inner Critic, aka Gretchen. My first thought as I heard these questions was dismay. Why would these questions plague me? I strongly believe in what I’m doing and the importance of this message. Why would doubts arise? Then I recognized another aspect of the questions. These are questions readers will have, a form of “What’s In This for Me?” I partly answered this question in the first post I wrote, “Four Benefits of Expressive Writing.” But that’s just one angle.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Writing After Shocks

(AP Photo/Yasushi Kanno, The Yomiuri Shimbun) JAPAN
People the world over are horrified at the devastation wreaked upon Japan. Haiti and the double-whammy in Christchurch shook us up. Fukushima  trumps them all with the basic destruction compounded by tsunamis rushing halfway across the planet and savaged nuclear plants. How will we ever feel safe again after what's beginning to seem like an ever-escalating assault by Mother Nature.

Obviously Japanese citizens are under the most severe sort of trauma as they deal with the current emergencies and contemplate the impact on their nation of recovery efforts. But to some extent this string of events, coupled with continuing concern about our economy, rising gas prices, and other stressful conditions traumatizes all of us, escalating stress levels for many.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing into the Fireplace

My thoughts swirled like a kaleidoscope on a blender motor. My tummy felt queasy, and my shoulders were massive knots of pain. This familiar condition struck me often over the course of the two years I spent in classes working on my masters degree in counseling. My inner mean girl, scaredy-cat and cheerleader got into brawling melees on a regular basis.

Desperate to still those swirling thoughts, I intuitively turned to writing — a strategy that had helped me through many teenage crises a dozen years earlier. I sat with a huge pad of paper and wrote, without any attempt to structure what flowed out of my fingers. I asked questions, whined, and groaned. I flamed idiots, blamed aggressors, and defended myself against real and imagined detractors. I licked wounds and reveled in self-pity.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Gut Connection

I felt my toe catch on a slight unevenness and my body hurtled forward toward the ground. My only thought was to protect my tender wrist. Next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a cluster of people as I lay face down on the sidewalk trying to move my throbbing head. Through a fog of pain I heard someone ask, "Did anyone call an ambulance?"

As I struggled to rise, to protest I'd be okay, I became aware of blood gushing from my nose and mouth ...

— Pat Cook

Each time I read this passage, I'm affected on a deeply visceral level. I literally feel the pain of smashing into the sidewalk. I experience the terror of hurtling forward. I taste the blood in my mouth. That would not be surprising if those were my words and I had personally tripped and fallen. But I've never fallen that way in my life, and I fervently pray I never do. So what's going on?

According to an article Richard Restak wrote in the Huffington Post, "Our brains were built for feeling each other's pain." He explains, "When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain same areas that are involved when we make that movement." This effect generalizes to emotion, and based on my experience reading the lines above, it also generalizes to sharing sensations of pain, and we don't even have to witness the event first hand. Simply reading about it bonds us.