Work Out Your Worries by Writing

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Expressive writing, as studied by Psychology professor James Pennebaker, has been shown to enhance both mental and physical health by strengthening immune systems and alleviating chronic pain, inflammation, and symptoms of depression. ILLUSTRATION: FREEPIK

After his father was rushed to the hospital with gastrointestinal bleeding, 43-year-old Yanatha Desouvre began to panic. So, he did the one thing he knew would calm him: he wrote.
“I’m so scared, he started.”I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose my dad.”
Over the next few weeks, Desouvre filled several notebooks, writing about his worries as well as his happy memories with his dad. The jokes they’d shared, the sport they watched and the time they put up house shutters together, then cooled down with ice cream. Sometimes, Desouvre cried as he wrote. Often, he laughed.
“Writing allowed me to face my fear,” says Desouvre. ”My pen was a portal to process the pain.”
He is in good company. An extensive body of research shows benefits to writing about a traumatic experience or difficult situation in a manner that psychologists refer to as “expressive writing.” According to psychology professor James Pennebaker, people who do this, recording their deepest thoughts and feelings, often show improved mental and physical health. Pennebaker pioneered the scientific study of expressive writing as a coping mechanism to deal with trauma in the 1980s.

Expressive Writing
Expressive Writing is a specific technique different from writing in a journal. The deal is to reflect honestly and thoughtfully on a particular trauma or challenge and to do it in short sessions.
Professor Pennebaker says that hundreds of studies over several decades have looked at the potential benefits of expressive writing and found that it can strengthen the Immune system, including for people with illnesses such as cancer, depression, asthma and arthritis. Research also found that it can help reduce chronic pain and inflammation and improve mood, sleep and memory. And it may even help reduce symptoms of depression.
Experts say that expressive writing works because it allows you to make meaning out of a painful experience. Jotting down your thoughts can be good for your health. Recognizing that something is bothering you is an important first step. Translating that experience into language forces you to organize your thoughts. And creating a narrative gives you a sense of control.
But there are a few caveats. Expressive Writing isn’t a magical panacea. It should not be used as a replacement for other treatments. People coping with severe trauma or depression may not find it useful to do on their own without therapy.
Yet it can be a powerful coping tool for many, in large part because it helps combat the secrecy people often feel about trauma, as well as their reluctance to face emotions.
“The more you avoid a problem, the more trouble you will have with it because you create a loop of trepidation and apprehension and increasing negative emotions,” says Dr Brain Marx, a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine. He uses an expressive writing protocol he helped design, called Written Exposure Therapy, with war veterans.

Why write?
Thinking and talking about an event can lead to ruminating, where you get lost in your emotions. But writing focuses you on slowing down, says Dr Joshua Smyth, distinguished professor of biobehavioral health and medicine at Pennsylvania Street University, who studies expressive writing. The mere acts of labelling a feeling of putting words to emotion can dampen the neural activity in the threat area of the brain, says psychology professor Dr Annette Stanton. Her research suggests that expressive writing can lead to lower depressive symptoms, greater positive mood and an enhanced appreciation for life.” Writing can increase someone’s acceptance of their experience, and acceptance is calming,” she says.
What if you don’t consider yourself a writer’? Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, and don’t share your writing with. But do dig deep into your thoughts and feelings. The goal of the exercise is to find meaning in an unsettling event.
Yanatha Desouvre initially turned to expressive writing about 15 years ago, after the break up of what he says was an unhealthy relationship. He wrote to understand why it made him feel vulnerable and sometimes physically ill. “You can keep things bottled up,” he says. ”It will make you sick.”
The writing brought up an older trauma as well. When he was nine, he says, he survived a shooting in a barber shop in New York. He had nightmares about it over the years but tried not to focus on it. He started writing about it, then kept going. It helped. As he wrote, Desouvre asked himself how he felt about the traumas of his life and what they revealed. It was painful, he says. “But when I acknowledged the pain, I was able to see the courage I did not know I had,” he says.
He thinks of his expressive writing as a captain’s log – a recording of what happened and what he’s learned. Sometimes, he jots down just a few minutes. But he always starts with “the tough stuff” and then writes about how he’s grown from the experience.
Last year, he wrote in a notebook, recording the stress of wrestling with germs, loss, misinformation and his kids’ home-schooling during the pandemic. But he’s also written about what he has gained: more time with his family and perspective.
“My expressive writing gave me the courage to face my fears,” Desouvre says. And I believe it has helped me discover the hope I need to heal.

Set aside time alone
Turn off your phone. Don’t look at emails or social media. Expressive writing doesn’t work well with a lot of interruptions or distractions.
Think short-term. This is not writing a journal. You aim to write for 15 to 20 minutes daily for three days.

Pick your medium
Using pen and paper is nice because it slows you down to the pace of your own handwriting. But using a computer or even recording your voice works, too.
The secret sauce is in the translation of thoughts and feelings into language,” says Dr Joshua Smyth.

Choose a topic
What is bothering you most? Is it something you can’t talk to anyone else about? Expressive writing is perfect for this.

Let sleeping days lie
Don’t ruminate over something you were not troubled by, to begin with.

Make the connections
Explore your deepest feelings. Pick a topic that is worrying you and explore why it happened, how it is related to other things in your life, and why it is bothering you now.

Don’t limit yourself
If your original topic leads you to another one, that’s fine. “This is a meaning-making process,” says Dr Smyth. “It might take some writing to get to what is really most essential.” And it’s OK if you feel bad at first. This is normal if you are focusing on a negative event.

Give yourself advice
What recommendations would you give to a friend with a similar issue?

Don’t share
Our writing changes when we know others are going to read it. Your goal is to be honest with yourself.

Power through
If you get stuck, just keep going. Dr Smyth suggests writing the last sentence you wrote over and over until you get unstuck.

Move on
If you find it doesn’t help after three days, try something else.

Reference by Elizabeth Bernstein Arom, the Wall Street Journal.


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