The idea that writing could be a healing practice is one that academia and the mainstream literary community often overlook or dismiss.
Writers understandably want their work to be of value to others, not just to themselves. You might hear a New York Times-bestselling author insist that her writing is “serious,” not self-help. A college professor might urge his students to move beyond writing that is “purely therapeutic.” In their respective fields, the emphasis of the writing is a polished, finished product, without much focus on the process.
But the pursuit of wellness is all about process. The Oxford Dictionary defines wellness as “the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal.” The active pursuit of health can and probably should include a slew of practices, from proper diet and exercise to getting enough sleep, seeing one’s healthcare provider on a regular basis, and treating existing conditions.
The act and process of writing has well-documented mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health benefits. A finished piece of writing might make readers feel good, but the process of writing it might make the writer feel good, too.
Here are some important ways that writing can make you healthier and happier, and a three-step process for pursuing those benefits yourself, along with an exercise you might use regularly to try to build a mindful-journaling practice to continue to reap these benefits in the long-term:
Writing it down
Just the act of writing down something previously unsaid, perhaps something difficult, embarrassing, traumatic, worrisome, or confidential, can bring peace to the writer. Feeling silenced, for whatever reason, takes its toll on us, because we are human beings hardwired for connection with one another.
A simple daily journaling practice, research says, has tremendous benefits for all aspects of health. A Syracuse University study found that participants undergoing treatment for asthma, arthritis, and/or AIDS who wrote up to 30 minutes per day for four days saw a notable increase in immune function and decrease in their stress levels. Asthma patients saw improved lung function. Participants all around saw reduced disease symptoms, were sleeping and eating better, remembering more, and seeing their doctors less.
But what do you do once you identify and document what’s bothering you?
Writing it out
Now that you have broken silence or tapped into your creative flow, it’s time to write to completion. Being “finished” looks different for every writer and every writing project.
The Syracuse researchers suggest that writing only about negative aspects of our lives has the potential to keep us mired in feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, or stress. If we write through those experiences, though, with the goal of letting go of the negative and striving toward positivity and healing, the rewards are great. Patients who participated in these studies saw marked improvement in pain, mood, blood pressure, and frequency of doctor’s visits.
And the patients who kept writing once the study was complete? They continued to enjoy its health benefits.
Writing it well
Once you have made writing a habit, whether you intend to keep your words to yourself or share them with others, you might feel the pull to polish what you’ve labored to put down. Studying craft, practicing and experimenting with different literary techniques, revising and editing—these are methods of improving your writing and making a story, essay, or poem the best it can be.
Continuing to work on your writing is much like continuing to work on your mental or physical health. The more we return to the gym, bike, pool, or hiking path, the more muscle we build. The stronger we become. The more we visit a therapist and process our pain, the more emotional intelligence we build. The stronger we become. We improve our communication skills, our capacity for empathy, our creativity, our problem-solving skills, and our goal-setting abilities—all of which contribute in huge ways to our overall wellness.
And when we can see our writing improve right there on the page, we might get a big boost of confidence, increased motivation, and even a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Not to mention, the path to writing more and better might include sharing work with others in a writing group or class, which can alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation—especially during a pandemic.
Let’s circle back to the idea of “actively pursuing” the goal of health through (in part) writing. If improving your physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual health is a factor in your desire to write, then writing regularly is key, according to medical professionals.
A first step might be procuring a nice blank journal or notebook to dedicate to daily or semi-regular writing. In the Syracuse study, participants wrote four times per week for about a half hour, which is a good goal to start.
If you have never kept a journal, the blank pages might seem daunting. To begin, write about your day. If you write at night, tell what happened that day, even the most mundane details. Recording details helps us become better at noticing, and good noticers make good writers. If you write in the morning, write about what you want your day to be like, even formally setting an intention or two.
Be sure to include feelings. The health benefits of writing pack more value when writers identify and record their feelings, but also when they return to their journal entries to process and understand those feelings. Once you have written four times a week for a few weeks, go back and reread what you wrote. Look for patterns in your emotions. Self-awareness is essential in working toward resolving negative, difficult, or traumatic feelings. Think of a journal as an emotional workbook, something only you will read.
And while it might not happen right away, when you do start to experience the health benefits of a regular writing practice, record that progress, too. If one day you sit down to write about your day and are compelled to write a short story instead, go with it. There are no rules about journaling. The point is just to build whatever kind of routine or habit works best for you.
To your good health!
Related reading: 4 ways to write yourself out of isolation
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