Dozens of studies have found that most people – from schoolchildren to nursing-home residents – feel happier and healthier after writing about their memories — but the benefit is intrinsically tied up with how the writing is done.
In his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, James Pennebaker, summarises ten years of scientific research into the connection between writing and increased physical and mental wellbeing.
He concludes that writing is a tremendously powerful tool, “far more powerful” than he and his team predicted when setting up their study. The effect isn’t just emotional or intellectual. F-R-E-E-Writing is good for body as well as soul — having benefits for blood pressure, insomnia, psychological well-being, and more.
One study found that those who wrote in this way had more active T-lymphocyte cells, an indication of improved immune system. Other studies have found that they tend to take fewer trips to the doctor, function better in day-to-day tasks, and score higher on tests of psychological well-being.
The benefits occur regardless of literacy or educational level. All that is needed is a sufficient level of literacy to communicate with oneself.
And the more often people write, the more beneficial the effects.
As a result of such findings, Writing Therapy is increasingly being used to help people with all kinds of physical and emotional problems — including life-threatening illnesses such as cancer; chronic conditions such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis; drug and alcohol addictions; eating disorders; and trauma.
It has also been shown to be beneficial for combating low self-esteem, depression, and stress-related ailments and even to have a positive impact on heart health: heart rate and blood pressure.
In addition, writing therapy is ideal in helping people cope with grief and loss. For example, poetry therapists were asked to work with the students of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, after the shooting tragedy there in 1999.
In her unfinished memoir essay, A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf wrote eloquently of her experience of such writing. She felt that by writing of her traumatic experience of sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brother, she did for herself what the, then new, practice of psychoanalysis was doing for its patients: “I expressed some very long and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it, I explained it and then laid it to rest”.
- F-R-E-E-Writing rights. At a daily level, it improves your psychic state, elevates your mood, makes you feel centred, sets you up for your day. Everybody always feels better after a F-R-E-E-Writing session than before.
- FREE-Writing connects. We connect with ourselves — the inner self, at all levels: mind, emotion and spirit. We connect with the outer world, by increasing our awareness of all our relationships, with people, places and things
- FREE-Writing uncovers. Because we write as fast as possible, thoughts and emotions are allowed to rise without the internal censor kicking in. This brings us to new understandings — concealed meanings and significances are brought to the surface. Woolf calls them “shocks”, those moments of profound insight that come from examining our past, because of how they force an awareness we wouldn’t otherwise have had.
- F-R-E-E-Writing unblocks. The new recognitions, ideas and emotions overcome habitual anxieties or self-sabotage. This is a very different dynamic from attempting to control what we perceive to be our flaws or bad habits. Consciously disciplining ourselves into change is generally doomed. We manage it for a time but our old, ingrained ways resurface, stronger than ever. (We see this dynamic clearly in binge drinkers or compulsive eaters but it is there to an extent in us all.) With regular FREE-Writing, the shells of our bad habits fall away as new experiences and preferences emerge – without conscious manipulation.
- FREE-Writing contextualises. Over time, we realise that our lives have been going somewhere, however blind we may have been to the direction. We find the connections beneath the surface fractures, the meaning that has been trying to establish itself in us. Re-entering the experiences of our lives allows them to serve as starting points for new, often unpredictable, inner movements that yield profound transformations.
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