Maya Angelou wrote that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
We often associate expressive writing with a skillset that requires perfection and beautiful use of language. Yet in a more realistic sense, writing can be an effective tool when used for stress management. As adults, we are often expected to “just deal with it” or “let it go,” but life isn’t always that simple. We tend to harbor negative emotions and thoughts that can eventually wear us down emotionally, spiritually and physically. Therefore, it’s important to find positive and productive outlets for stress and overwhelming moments in life.
Expressive writing, or journaling, has been around for centuries as a common practice. James Pennebaker, MD, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin, deepened research into the benefits of expressive writing for dealing with stress and trauma. He looked at writing not only as a benefit, but his research also reinforced the opinion that those who wrote about traumatic or stressful events for meaning and insight gained more relief than those who just wrote about the details of their day. Those benefits included, but were not limited to: identifying and managing stressors, emotional healing, increased social support, improved immunity, lower pressure and problem solving.
It’s important to know that a person does not need to be a published author to be an effective writer. The goal is not perfection, it’s to grow and learn from circumstances that cause stress and worry. The goal is not to abide by grammar rules but to focus on how you feel about what’s happening or what has happened in life. On the other hand, if you have been dealing with chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other mental illness, writing may not be the best outlet and seeking professional help to guide you is highly recommended. Writing may still be encouraged but only under the guidance of a professional who can help navigate you through those particular emotions.
To get started, take a look at the following steps:
- Choose an electronic device or an old fashioned journal. If you are worried about someone reading your entries, then you can either shred the paper after you are finished or delete the document.
- Pick a time during the day when you have at least 15-20 minutes to write without distraction. You can pick what you want to write about or simply start writing without stopping until the time has ended.
- Take time to reflect upon what you’ve written. What does it mean to you? How does it make you feel? What can you do to turn this into a more positive situation or interaction?
- Forgive yourself. You may feel things that make you uncomfortable or have anger you did know realize was there. Understand that with writing there is no judgement — only you, pen and paper.
- If you come to a place where you are overwhelmed by emotion, please stop. You may not be ready to address those things so taking a break and coming back at a later time may be the best action in that moment.
- Write often. Daily writing would be ideal, but consistency is key. The more you write, the better you become at writing, and the more effective writing becomes as a tool for you to manage stress and your response associated with those stressors.
Ultimately, writing helps increase a person’s sense of happiness, productivity and health. This leads to a more positive interaction with our external environment. Happy writing and remember to find gratitude even in moment of distress. We write our way to a silver lining.
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About the author
Stephanie Thompson, CPT, is a Wellness Coordinator for Baylor Scott and White Health. She graduated from Baylor University in 2008 and has worked toward providing health and wellness education for nearly eight years. She is passionate about helping others reach their full potential both physical and mentally through positive support and education.