The Challenge: Life is challenging, and we don’t always know how to deal with it.
The Science: Writing and journaling can help you cope, develop new perspectives, and neutralize the intensity of some emotions.
The Solution: Try these writing tips for greater well-being and insight.
Last summer I was involved in a freak rope swing accident. I broke multiple bones across my face and eye socket and had to undergo emergency surgery to repair them. The accident was physically scarring and emotionally traumatic – not only for me but for my friends and family involved. No one should have to rescue an unconscious friend from a lake, and no parent should get a phone call saying, “Your daughter is in the hospital.”
I spent the next eight weeks in intensive recovery while my body and mind healed. From the time I was a little girl, I have always processed emotions through writing. And this ordeal was no exception. I found myself constantly journaling and writing – in an attempt to process the way my life was turned upside down in a matter of seconds.
Surprisingly, what I thought would be tear-stained pages full of painful memories turned out to be incredibly uplifting. I found myself writing about gratitude, devotion, relationships, my job – and the outpouring of love that had been a result of this trauma. Love for my friends and my family, and love for myself. I was able to take a shocking, tragic story and rewrite my perception of the experience. It was like I was rewriting history itself – attempting to view the situation in the most positive light possible.
Research has shown that writing can be tremendously therapeutic:
- One study had a group of college students with depressive symptoms participate in expressive writing. The students from the first study showed fewer depressive symptoms at the end of six months than the control group.
- Other studies cite the importance of labeling our emotions to help us feel them less intensely. Science supports the theory that we naturally label our feelings simply by writing or speaking to a friend. By acknowledging and labeling those emotions, we can neutralize them. We can see our emotions for what they really are rather than fear them or bottle them up.
- A New York Times article argued that writing about ourselves and our experiences can help us cope and even combat mental disorders.
One of my favorite quotes is a song lyric from Anna Nalick’s “Breathe.” “If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to.” By releasing words to paper, we can begin to see our sad, stressful, traumatic, and negative stories as different. We can see how we’ve grown, how we have changed, and how we have still triumphed. We can not change the events, but we can change how we view them and how we feel about them. Change our perception. Change our perspective. It’s funny how we sometimes create storylines in our heads that aren’t always true or real. By writing out our stories, we can see them more objectively. We can be more in touch with our reality, who we are, and all that we are capable of.
If you aren’t naturally drawn to pen and paper – like myself, Anna, or famous writers like Joan Didon – you can start small. Nothing complicated or time-consuming – just a few minutes every day to honor yourself and what you are feeling. Here are a couple of ideas to help get you started:
- Buy a tiny little notebook. I like those cute, colorful, pocket-sized Moleskines! Keep it on your nightstand, and write down one sentence before you go to bed. One thought about your day.
- Keep a living Google Doc on your phone. If you’re like me, you are rarely without a cell phone. Write a few sentences while you are on the bus, waiting in line at the grocery store, or after you have your morning coffee. Think of it as a text to yourself!
- Put a Post-it note on your mirror, reminding you to write.
- Find a good e-mail pen pal. Some of my breakthroughs have come from email chains with dear friends. Writing to someone can often feel more motivating or purposeful.
Writing is not only an incredible way to reflect, meditate, and process emotions – but maybe you will surprise yourself with how much easier expressing yourself becomes – on paper or in your relationships. Allowing ourselves the chance to label our emotions can help us be more authentic so we can tune into who we really want to be and focus on what we really want. For me, writing is about creating space. I get my emotions outside of my body on paper so I have space to learn, create, and accept new possibilities for myself.
Life is filled with unimaginable events, traumas, loss, heartbreaks – you name it. We lose jobs. We go through breakups. We fight with our parents and our siblings. We get in car accidents. We get betrayed by friends. Life is damn hard. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, as we are constantly bombarded with sadness in the news, on social media, and in our day-to-day activities. But science says we have a tool to deal with all this negativity. It doesn’t come from a store, and it doesn’t require other people – it can come directly from you. And that is wildly empowering.