Writing for the Health of It

I’m honored to be able to share the first guest post! I found it so interesting to read that aside from all the emotional benefits of writing, that it is also good for our physical health! Thanks so much to Linda C.Wisniewski for sharing her knowledge with us as well as offering some helpful journaling exercises.

Writing for the Health of It
By Linda C.Wisniewski

If you’ve ever kept a diary or poured your heart out in a letter to a trusted friend, you have likely experienced the healing power of writing. But do you know about the clinical studies documenting some very real physical benefits?

In the 1960s and 70s, American psychotherapist Dr. Ira Progoff, developer of the Intensive Journal Method, noticed that his clients who kept journals worked through their issues faster than those who just had talk therapy. In the 1990s, Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas asked students to write about emotionally significant events in their lives for twenty minutes a day, for four consecutive days. Another group of students wrote about trivial matters. Blood samples showed a marked increase in the levels of T-lymphocytes or “T-cells,” in the first group. These “natural killer cells” fight off autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. The T-cell levels stayed higher for six weeks after the experiment, and the students’ visits to the university health center decreased by half. Another study with people who had lost their jobs showed that 53% of those who wrote about their feelings got new jobs compared to only 18% of those who did not write about the stressful experience, although both groups went on the same number of interviews.

Besides these physical benefits, there are additional reasons to write about what upsets us:

  • It can change our perspective. We see that these are isolated events, not one’s whole life.
  • It often moves us from catharsis to insight on the causes of our difficulty.
  • It fosters problem solving. One of my teachers called this “slowing down to the pace of considered thought.” Writing forces us to record a complete idea before jumping to the next one.

Writing Free: Attracting the Creative Life by Rebecca Lawton and Jordan Rosenfeld contains many exercises to nurture your muse as well as heal from bad times. Here is one I have used in my own workshops:

Make a list of negative experiences, e.g., Mom died, I lost my job, my divorce, having the flu last week. Then, to the right of each item, write the dominant negative feeling you recall. Finally, write antonyms for the negative emotion.

Event                 Feeling                 Antonym
Mom died           Lonely                 Loved
Lost my job        Scared                 Brave

Write for a minute about one of more of the antonym words in relation to the bad experience. “I feel loved when I remember Mom making cookies. The aroma of her baking in the kitchen when I came home…”

Perhaps one of the most difficult emotional tasks we face is forgiveness. We all know it’s healing, but when someone has hurt us deeply, it’s so hard to just let it go.  One technique I’ve found to be quite powerful is to write a series of unsent letters. First, recall a time when you were physically or emotionally hurt. Write a letter to the person who hurt you, describing the entire scene, telling them what happened and how you felt about yourself and them. Now write a second letter about the same event to your best friend, telling what happened and how you felt. Third, write a response from the person who hurt you as you expect they would write it. Finally, write the same response the way you would like them to respond. You see, we can have that happy ending after all! Our hearts don’t know or care who really wrote that last letter, only that we feel so much better.

I love this quote from the author Tristine Rainer: You are more likely to discover the essence of your individuality by studying the unique composition of your happiness…than you are by focusing on worries or disappointments. …to find what brings you genuine happiness is to discover who you really are.

Using your journal writing practice to heal your emotional wounds can literally change your life. You are not your pain. You are whatever makes you happy. I wish you the peace of balance and healing through your own words on the page.

Linda C.Wisniewski is an American writer who teaches memoir workshops in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her essays, features and memoirs have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Sun, The Rose and Thorn, and other places both print and online. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her book, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her online at www.lindawis.com.

5 thoughts on “Writing for the Health of It

  1. Linda, thank you for your words and thoughts about healing and the importance of writing down both negative and positive entries,then allowing healing to come from them. It may be obvious to some, but I needed to read the information and research, and now I get it!

  2. Wonderful post, thank you Leila and Linda. I agree that writing is an effective tool for healing. Upon finishing the writing of my memoir I no longer felt detached from my past. Writing my history made it real and helped me accept the things that for years I had denied. It took several years and therapy sessions to be where I am today, but I know without a doubt that writing was pivotal part of my healing.

    Your antonym exercise is brilliant. Great idea to turn the negative to positive. Makes a lot of sense.

    I owe a debt of gratitude to Tristine Rainer for her book Your Life As Story. Her words gave me the confidence to go for it.

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