“Pain is the pen that writes the song that calls us forth to dance.”
I’ll let you in on a secret…You can discover the path to emotional healing and master your life through the power of the pen. It’s true! Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, the process of writing will help you to cope with and process past events, diffuse emotionally-charged memories, gain insight into your history, and transform and redefine your future. Telling your own stories will allow you to let them go and free yourself.
Past Trauma and Daily Stress Can Be Debilitating
Do you struggle with a traumatic past or daily stress? You’ll be amazed by how writing the facts as you see them will help bring you clarity and allow you to process your emotions in a new way.
Examples of trauma you may have encountered include:
• Surviving physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
• Suffering the loss of loved ones, material wealth, occupation, or health
• Witnessing violence or experiencing another traumatic life event
Many people who have experienced trauma try to put it behind them by keeping their story a secret or trying to avoid thinking about the experience because of the powerful feelings of sorrow, anger, or shame that their memories. Unfortunately, this often leads to feelings of depression, anxiety, insecurity, and low self-esteem. These negative feelings, in turn, can lead to poor life choices, poor impulse control, and substance abuse. Individuals suffering from past trauma can also suffer from unhealthy relationships, poor emotion control, sleeplessness, and health problems.
Find Healing Through Writing Your Life Stories
Expressive writing is a way to literally take control of your own story. Life story writers record an account of their tough life events and tell emotional truths from their experiences. Healing from emotional trauma starts with telling your story. Doing so is an emotional experience, but as you continue to explore and express your story in different ways, you’ll find that your story no longer sparks the same emotional and behavioral reactions.
James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, has spent over 20 years studying the links between emotional experiences, language, and mental and physical health. As an expert in writing to heal, he recommends not only expressive writing but writing with some direction to help develop an organized account of the traumatic event. Pennebaker’s studies showed that by converting emotions into words, the response to the memories of the traumatic event will change.
Similarly, writing is a effective way to cope with anxiety and depression. Writing through emotion changes the way you think about events, and you can make friends with your emotions as you learn to express them in a positive and healthy way.
Writing puts emotions and memories in a place where they no longer hurt you. It feels much safer to manage words on paper than to confront tough situations When you’re able to feel safe, you can begin to heal. This emotion-focused coping boosts your psychological resilience.
Writing your life stories can also help you re-assess current stress and past memories with new insight and clarity. Writing helps you attain a bird’s-eye view of traumatic situations as well as your own motivations and responses to the events. You’ll understand yourself more fully and begin to understand how you can take control of how to process your emotions. Writing helps you build emotional resilience.
Writing Can Heal Your Physical Wounds
While writing has multiple benefits for emotional and psychological healing, a study led by Elizabeth Broadbent at the University of Auckland in New Zealand added important evidence to support the many benefits and properties of expressive writing: your words can also help your physical healing.
The act of writing forces you to put words to your emotions, and this intentional, coherent collection of your thoughts creates a greater mind and body connection. In the study, half of the participants, all healthy 64- to 97-year-olds, were asked to spend 20 minutes each day writing about the most traumatic experiences of their lives.
They had a few guidelines.
- Be candid and open about what they felt and thought, both now and at the time of the event
- Share their most intimate, private thoughts, especially if they’d never expressed them before
The other half of the 49 participants were assigned to write about their plans for the following day.
Two weeks after they started writing, each participant had local anesthesia for a small skin biopsy that left a wound. Researchers found that 11 days after the biopsy, 76 percent of the individuals who had written about traumatic experiences in their life were fully healed; only 42 percent of the other group, which wrote about their plans, were totally healed at that point.
Researchers noted that the individuals who wrote about their trauma started to sleep better and for longer; other researchers in the study postulate that, while they didn’t measure stress, these individuals may have also experienced less stress or anxiety and lower levels of stress hormones that can prevent healing.
Proven Benefits of Writing Your Life Stories
Writing your life story provides more than emotional healing and a means to gain a sense of control over your life: Writing can help you heal physically as well. According to Pennebaker’s research, expressive writing for even 20 minutes a day can help you to feel better. Writing has been shown to:
- Boost the immune system
- Reduce life stress
- Promote healing from disease and injury
- Increase the lung function in asthma patients
- Decrease chronic pain from arthritis, cancer, and injury
- Induce more restful sleep
Writing daily promotes a positive mood and mental focus. It can decrease depression and anxiety symptoms, thereby improving school grades and job performance. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed a relief in symptom severity and less stress and anxiety overall.
Pennebaker’s research, along with the studies of a variety of other professionals, has led to the development of expressive writing therapy as an undergraduate or graduate degree program in colleges around the world. A study by two general practitioners in surgery centers in the UK posits that writing should be “cheap, simple, and accessible.” They’ve found a variety of situations in which writing could be a positive step, and feel that writing therapy as a primary intervention warrants full trials.
With that in mind, expressive writing can be one of the quickest ways to not only address difficult or traumatic situations in your life, but to get your life story out of your head and into a platform where you can help others find recovery, as well.
“A great story, then, is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform — a great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self-transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.”
Expressive Writing: What You Need to Know
In essence, expressive writing is just what it seems: pouring your emotions and thoughts onto paper, without regard to the rules that constrain so many writers. Too often, writers develop the infamous “writer’s block,” which keeps them from fully expressing themselves, especially when writing about their own life story, for a variety of reasons:
- Writers are unable to identify or pinpoint the precise word that perfectly captures their emotions or experiences.
- Writers feel self-conscious about sharing their own individual experiences, as many people tend to defer to others and keep their own opinions to themselves, even when writing.
- Writers find the emotions surrounding the experience to be stronger than they are able to handle and, rather than pushing through to find the breakthrough, stop writing altogether.
- Writers enter with the preconceived notion that they must be a formal writer with a strong command of grammar, spelling, and other writing conventions to be able to write their life story.
Expressive writing, which includes freewriting, is the perfect solution. It allows anyone at any level of writing ability to find a way to put those feelings and situations on paper in a healthy, safe space mentally and physically, addressing their situations and discovering their true life story.
- As you find words for your emotions, your brain finds a way to neutralize the anger, pain and sadness you feel.
- When you tell and share your story, you find a way to make sense of the experiences you’ve lived through, reshaping your behavior and improving your health, while helping others get through a similar experience.
- Pulling from studies by Pennebaker and other researchers, authors of one study showed that expressive writing gives you greater access to your unconscious self, where you can work through your feelings.
- A study conducted at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa found that freewriting, through expressive writing, helped students whose first language was not English to feel greater confidence about their English writing fluency.
When incorporated into your daily life and routine, you can see the power expressive writing has to transform your life and health. It helps you to organize your thoughts, find deeper meaning, and free yourself of the emotional baggage that might be dragging you down and keeping you from discovering your true purpose in life.
Expressive writing doesn’t have to be done alone, either. Finding a professional can make the experience even more rewarding and effective.
Work with Someone Trained in Expressive Writing
Reap the greatest benefit from your writing by working with someone trained as an expressive writing guide. Learn how to construct life stories from the traumatic or stressful events so that you can transform the bare facts into meaningful narratives that will help you embrace the events and surrounding emotions in a way that feels safe. A guide can help you feel safe to begin the process of writing that will give you the courage and support to confront the past events and current strong emotions.
Memoirs are so popular because they are the stories of progress – we can see ourselves in stories of overcoming adversity, traveling to distant places, losing loved ones, and discovering hope.
Develop a Habit for a Better Life
Creating a habit of writing about events and the attached emotions helps to clear your mind. It will help keep your focus on what’s important in your life today. With improved focus, you can acquire and remember new information easier and improve problem-solving skills. Feel less stress and experience emotional control and relief as you learn to use expressive writing to heal.
Living with unpleasant feelings is draining and difficult. Happiness and peace are within reach no matter what your circumstances. Learn the skills for mental wellness through writing about and acceptance of the past and discovering inner strength. Improve your relationship with yourself, and your relationships with those you love will benefit as well. Compassionately embrace emotions about your traumatic life and you’ll find that they are a source of personal growth and strength.
Don’t wait to change your life! Get started today and free yourself from your past through writing your life stories.