“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
On a recent trip to the grocery store, I overheard a conversation between a man and his wife while standing behind them in the checkout line. The man, probably in his mid-thirties, complained to his wife about a last minute report he had to write for his company. Someone else had dropped the ball, and despite his weeks of overtime and severe lack of sleep, he’d been tasked with the extra work. He said he was tired. He was stressed. The last thing he wanted to do was write.
Even though I knew he meant the last thing he wanted to write was a tedious report, and he wasn’t referring to the kind of therapeutic, personal writing I enjoy so much, the comment stuck with me for the rest of the evening. I know many people who would echo this man’s sentiment, but apply it to writing of any kind. Personal, academic or professional, some people dislike any prolonged form of writing.
Perhaps the fairly common distaste for this particular art form is rooted in formal schooling. For most of us, our first venture into the world of the written word comes in a structured, often punishing environment. We learn to write, but are constantly bombarded with corrections from teachers and parents attempting to teach us to write “better.” And though their concern for our grasp of grammar and syntax is warranted and necessary, it’s easy to understand how some people might shy away from the process for fear of criticism.
If you’re lucky enough to catch the writing bug it can be stressful and disheartening to encounter people, especially friends and loved ones, with a visceral aversion to putting pen to paper—especially now that we’ve accumulated so much research indicating how effective writing can be in helping us heal both psychological and physical wounds.
Research into the connection between writing and psychological health began to gain momentum in the late 1980s, and the results gathered over the last three decades provide support for what most self-proclaimed writers already knew: writing is an excellent form of independent therapy.
One study of note compiled the results from several different therapeutic writing trials, and sought to identify whether or not writing could help victims of traumatic events better cope with their post-trauma lives. In each of the trials, researchers asked half of the group to write about mundane topics like time-management or daily activities, and the other half to write about “an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life.” The writing was completely confidential, and each group was asked to write for about a half hour each day for 3-5 consecutive days.
Participants reported that the actual process of writing was quite stressful, and they often wanted to discontinue their involvement. But the results were astonishing. Researchers found that following the therapeutic writing trials, groups asked to write about their emotional experiences:
- Visited physicians less often, had healthier immune systems, lower heart rates and reported fewer instances of illness.
- Reported generally better moods and less personal psychological stress.
- Showed improved grades (if enrolled in school).
- Found employment more quickly than unemployed members of the non-emotional writing groups.
- Were less likely to miss days of work or school.
- Reported fewer depressive episodes.
Though the results speak for themselves, they’re even more impressive when you consider that the same improvements were found across demographic groups. The various compiled studies featured students, professionals, the elderly, and even convicted felons. Writing about trauma appears to be universally beneficial, and further research indicates that expressive writing has emotional benefits even if you haven’t had any significant traumatic experiences.
And I suspect the confidentiality played a critical role in the effectiveness of these therapeutic writing studies. Like any other art form, writing is less stressful without an audience, without critics. How honestly can you express yourself if you’re concerned with who might read your work and pass judgment? But if you’re guaranteed to be the only consumer of your written words? What an exceptional opportunity to work out complicated, difficult, stressful feelings—feelings that we’re naturally inclined to ignore and repress. And if repression, as research indicates, has a negative effect on our psychological health, expression should logically have the opposite result.
I wish I’d used pen and paper to work out my feelings about writing as therapy prior to overhearing that man complain to his wife. If I had, maybe I would have had the confidence to tell him that perhaps his work-related stress could be combatted with a more expressive form of the tedious writing he seemed to dread so much.