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.

Prior to the study on writing, Pennebaker had been involved in research on trauma and found that over half the people he surveyed had significant traumas like deaths, accidents, fires, or abuse in their lives prior to the age of 17. Using frequency of doctor visits as a measure, those who had experienced any kind of traumas had twice as many doctor visits as those who were trauma free. More significantly, those who had never told anyone about their experience had 40% more visits than those who had disclosed the event. After the study, doctor visit rates dropped for participants.

Disclosure helps. He designed the study about writing because not everyone has a safe or appropriate person to confide in, but anyone can write. People who participated in his study often told him later that they felt relieved, physically better, or even that the writing had changed their lives.

Writing has one significant advantage over talking about a situation. It’s human nature to play to your audience as you tell as story. If you have a sympathetic listener, you may play up some aspects. If you sense frowns and disapproval, you are likely to withhold certain information. The balance between desire for approval, desire to “come clean,” to protect yourself, and to protect the other person can be tricky and present additional challenges. When you write, you don’t have to tell a soul, and you can be blazingly honest, perhaps exploring certain aspects you’d never mention to anyone else.

In an ideal situation, if you talk to exactly the right person who is able to fully empathize and step into your pain or distress with you for a short time, you may experience even fuller relief for having been witnessed, heard, respected, and accepted “in spite of it all.” If you have access to such a person, by all means, count your blessings! If not, haul out the pen and paper — or keyboard.

The bottom line from the trauma research leading Pennebaker into exploring the therapeutic aspects of writing is that even if you don’t tell a soul about your traumatic events and emotional upheavals, you may be experiencing lingering health effects you are not even aware of. By writing about them, you are able to come to a sense of resolution and experience improvements in both physical and emotional health.

Write now: set aside twenty minutes or longer at a time when you won’t be interrupted or hurried, and write about an emotional upheaval in your life. Write longer if you wish, and continue for up to four days if you want. You can keep what you write if you want, or even share it, but it’s fine to tear it up or burn it. Ideally you should keep writing until your thoughts begin to form into a sort of coherent narrative or story about the event, and you’ve developed some new insight.

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