by Diana Raab, Ph.D.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and a good time to think about writing for wellness. A lot of research has been done on the healing power of expressive writing and how it reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. When you write down your deepest thoughts about a stressful event, your heart rate goes down and you experience a profound sense of well-being. Writing personal stories also frees up buried emotions and thoughts, which can eventually lead to revelations.
Psychologist James Pennebaker is a pioneer in studying the healing power of writing. He’s found that those who write regularly visit doctors 43 percent less than those who do not engage in this practice, and exhibit better overall health as well.
Over the years, quite a few well-known writers have used their notebooks and/or journals as a way to heal. Many have gone on to publish their work, including Walt Whitman, Audre Lorde, May Sarton, Hilda Raz, Donald Hall, Elizabeth Berg, Jane Kenyon, Isabel Allende, and my favorite diarist, Anaïs Nin, who began her first journal as a letter to her estranged father, who left her family when she was ten years old. Writing that letter was her way of helping herself heal from the pain of losing him. Nin went on to become an avid diarist, and today, many volumes of her journals have been published.
Nin wasn’t the only writer who has used letter writing as a form of healing. For example, novelist Isabel Allende also began her career by writing a letter to her grandfather when he was nearly 100 years old. At the time, he was dying in Chile where her novel House of Spirits is set. She admits that in many ways, writing that novel saved her life.
Here are some reasons why you may wish to regularly write down your thoughts:
- It’s a good way to capture and record memories.
- It’s a vehicle for clearing the mind.
- It’s a forum for building confidence.
- It’s a good way to empower yourself.
- It provides a foundation for witnessing the healing process.
Having the proper tools is essential when keeping a journal. It’s important to have a notebook that inspires you, in a size that meets your personal needs. It should resonate with your personality, as should your writing utensil.
The best way to begin is with 20 to 30 minutes of free-writing first thing in the morning. This practice involves writing without lifting your pen or pencil off the page. Begin by writing about an experience that has deeply affected you, or one that has been an obsession for you. If you’re still stuck, just write at the top of the page: “Right now, I feel . . .”
It’s beneficial to get into a daily writing habit, and with time you might find that you’ll write for longer periods of time. One thing to keep in mind is that if you start crying or the pain becomes too great during this process, it’s probably a good idea to take a break and do something different—for example, go for a walk or engage in some other form of exercise.
In summary, the best part about writing for wellness or healing is the ability to turn a negative into a positive . . . and that’s a good thing!