Photo: Hannah Olinger
What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you? Something that you still think about or still affects you to this day.
Hold that thought, okay? Right now we need to do storytime with Uncle Eric:
More than thirty years ago there was a guy named Jamie, his marriage was in the toilet, and he was utterly depressed. Despite having big problems, he didn’t go to a therapist. (Which is ironic because Jamie was a graduate student in psychology, of all things.)
Instead he started writing. A lot. He wrote about his marriage, his career, his childhood. He basically covered every serious issue in his life and how he felt about it. And then something happened…
He felt better. A lot better. And he realized how much his wife meant to him. They resolved their issues. Then he had a thought: maybe writing might help anyone feel better about their struggles in life. And being a psychology grad student, he did a study to test the theory…
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And he was right. Since that first paper was published in 1986 literally hundreds of other studies have shown the power of expressive writing to help people with, well, damn near everything in their life. (Yes, that sounds extreme. I know, I know. We’ll get to it. We’re just getting started here, okay?)
In the thirty-plus years since that first epic writing binge many students on the University of Texas at Austin campus have come up to Professor James Pennebaker and said something like:
You don’t remember me, but I was in your experiment a year ago. I just wanted to thank you. It changed my life.
Suitably impressed, are ya? Good. Because we gotta get this show on the road, junior.
James Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His book is Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain.
So what difference can an evening ritual of writing make for you? And how might the worst thing in your life possibly lead to the best thing?
Let’s get to it …
The Following May Be Hard To Believe …
I have procrastinated writing this section because it feels like something you might hear on an infomercial. Like quackery. Pseudoscience. But it’s real. Scout’s honor.
Jamie’s research found that expressive writing had effects similar to therapy. It was like talking to a close friend or a therapist about your problems but there weren’t any judgments and it didn’t cost $200 an hour.
So you probably won’t be too surprised that writing helped people suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD. It helped their relationships too. But that wasn’t all…
Their physical health improved as well.
People who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding traumatic experiences evidenced enhanced immune function compared with those who wrote about superficial topics. Although this effect was most pronounced after the last day of writing, it tended to persist six weeks after the study. In addition, it was again observed that health center visits for illness dropped for the people who wrote about traumas compared to those who wrote on the trivial topics.
Okay, so they caught fewer colds? Yeah, and …
Women with breast cancer reported fewer symptoms and required fewer cancer-related doctor visits. People with asthma and arthritis “reported meaningful improvements in quality of life similar to benefits that would be expected by a successful new drug treatment.” It’s helped people with HIV, cardiovascular disease and chronic pain. People slept better. Smokers were more likely to quit. Several studies even showed that after expressive writing wounds healed faster …
I’m gonna stop before I start to sound like an infomercial or somebody selling magic healing crystals. I wouldn’t blame you at all for feeling some skepticism — I just hope you’re as patient as you are skeptical because it will take you an awfully long time to read the 17,000+ citations on Google Scholar that demonstrate the positive effects of expressive writing.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a panacea. It doesn’t cure cancer. Its benefits are modest to moderate and it doesn’t help everyone all the time. That said, it has a lot to offer. It’s stupidly easy. And it doesn’t require some app that’s gonna bill you $9.99 a month for eternity. It’s free.
And as the infomercials love to say: “But wait — there’s more!” Being happier and healthier is nice but expressive writing also demonstrated concrete effects on people’s lives. Students’ grades improved. Unemployed people who did it were far more likely to get jobs.
Within three months, 27 percent of the experimental participants landed jobs compared with less than 5 percent of those in the time management and no-writing comparison groups. By seven months after writing, 53 percent of those who wrote about their thoughts and feelings had jobs compared with only 18 percent of the people in the other conditions. Particularly striking about the study was that the participants in all three conditions had all gone on exactly the same number of job interviews.
Some might respond by saying they don’t have depression or cancer, so they’re going to stick with their current evening ritual of chips, salsa and “To Catch A Predator” reruns. They don’t have big tragic problems so this wouldn’t be a good evening ritual for them.
Wrong. We all deal with emotional struggles — whether we realize them or not, whether they make us clinically depressed or not. Expressive writing has shown positive effects in people who weren’t dealing with anything serious.
Looking beyond studies specifically with people diagnosed with a clinical disorder, some evidence for the benefit of expressive writing for feelings of depression and general distress has also been found in people who were not clinically depressed.
So what’s the biggest benefit people report after a few evenings of expressive writing? “Insight.” Most people said they understood themselves better. They felt more meaning in life. To my knowledge, nobody has ever reported effects like that from buying a ShamWow or a Foreman Grill.
(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, Sherlock, we have a mystery on our hands. Shouldn’t anything this amazing involve a doctor’s prescription, insurance deductibles and nuclear fusion? And why didn’t anybody tell me about this after I lost my favorite GI Joe action figure at age 7 or after the Great Eric Depression of 2014?
Simply put, how can something so ridiculously free and easy do so much good?
How The Sorcery Works
We all deal with stress, pain and assorted glitches in the source code of life. Yeah, you can ignore them, bury them or distract yourself but they’re still there. (My own personal experiments have demonstrated that bourbon only qualifies as a “solution” if you’re speaking in terms of chemistry.)
Emotional upheavals you don’t get closure on cause you stress. Mental and physical. They can increase the chance of illness, stroke, heart attack, or worst of all, erectile dysfunction.
In the short run, restraining thoughts or feelings can immediately affect our body, for example, by increasing perspiration or causing faster heart rates, as seen during lie detector tests. Over time, the work of keeping secrets serves as a cumulative stressor on the body, increasing the likelihood of illness and other stress-related physical and mental problems… Major life experiences that are withheld from others are likely to surface in the forms of anxiety, ruminations, disturbing dreams, and other thought disturbances.
Oh, so when it comes to emotional stuff, you just need to “get it out”? To vent. Right?
Wrong. Merely expressing feelings makes it worse.
The effects were not due to simple catharsis or the venting of pent-up emotions. In fact, the people who just blew off steam by venting their feelings without any thoughtful analysis tended to fare worse… Talking or writing about the source of our problems without self-reflection merely adds to our distress…
If all it took was venting then complainers and those who pollute our social media feeds with angry rants would be the most emotionally well-adjusted people around.
It’s not the expression of our emotions — it’s making sense of them that sets us right.
The authors asked the students to write about their thoughts and feelings about their lives. Those who showed more deep-level thinking along with constructive problem solving were less depressed later and had fewer health care visits. Those medical students who merely expressed their emotions and described their anxiety had more health care visits… A large number of good scientific studies conclude that the mere expression of emotion is usually not beneficial on its own. Rather, people typically must learn to recognize and identify their emotional reactions to events. Talking (and other forms of expression) is beneficial when it helps people make sense of their experiences.
You need meaning in your life. And in the modern world, we have tidal waves of information but meaning is about as common as three-legged ballerinas. Life’s inevitable emotional upheavals shake up our vision of the world, mess with our identity and make us question the fragile Etch-A-Sketched vision of meaning we’ve managed to cobble together over the decades.
We ruminate endlessly but that just makes things worse. When you’re merely thinking about your problems, you hop, skip and jump all over the place, never resolving one issue before moving on to the next. Writing forces us to put a structure around life. To make sense of it.
You’ve probably heard some version of the expression, “If you can’t explain it to someone else, you don’t really understand it.” That’s true of our emotional lives as well. Writing — just like talking to someone — forces you to make some sense. And that’s what you need most when life takes your vision of reality and shakes it like a snow globe.
Once you understand something, once you can find a place for it in the story of your life, that’s when you can put it behind you and move on.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Got the gist? Good. Now that you’re sufficiently gisted, let’s clear the decks …
Your writing ritual can be used for many purposes: dealing with life’s big issues, finally putting some old business to rest, dealing with tough transitions or just stilling an anxious mind.
The only time you really want to avoid writing about something is when it’s still a bit recent and raw or if you find approaching the topic overwhelming.
The studies that have hinted that expressive writing could be harmful have involved pushing people to engage in emotional processing of events that are overwhelming, are ongoing, or have happened in the previous days or weeks.
The only other thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to use disclosure as a substitute for action. If the problem has negative effects on your life that take place outside your skull, don’t think that you can skip actually doing something about it.
Just because you’ve emotionally come to terms with debt doesn’t mean you can stop paying off your credit card.
(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)
So how do we get the most from our writing ritual?
How To Write
Don’t wake up and immediately try to deal with big life issues. Just. Don’t.
There’s a reason this isn’t a morning ritual. And Jamie’s research confirms this: “Across multiple studies, we have had the most success with people writing at the end of their workday.”
So how do you get started? Here’s Jamie:
Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed. Ideally, pick a time at the end of your workday or in the evening when you know things will be calm and quiet. Promise yourself that you will write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least three or four consecutive days, or a fixed day and time for several weeks (for example, every Thursday evening for this month). Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written. You can write longhand or you can type on a computer. If you are unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder. You can write about the same thing on all days of writing or you can write about something different each day. It is entirely up to you.
Many people experience some initial paralysis around what to write about or how to begin. No need to stress. It’s pretty straightforward. Here’s Jamie:
Over the next four days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now? Many people have not had a single traumatic experience, but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives, and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.
You can write about anything, but make sure to emphasize feelings. Don’t just record a summary of the events. Look for meaning. Make sense of it. A rule I use is, “If writing about a subject feels scary, definitely write about that.”
And remember that this is for you and you alone. If you think someone else might read it, you’re going to hold back or twist the story. After you’re done you can destroy it or keep it or make a macaroni picture out of it with glitter and put it on the fridge. It doesn’t matter. The exercise is what matters, not the result.
Expect to feel a little sad or out of it when you’re done. Don’t let that scare you from returning to it the next day. Most people in the studies found that those feelings dissipated pretty quickly, in a matter of hours. It’s like seeing a sad movie. But weeks and months later most people felt much, much better.
(To learn the 4-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, you know what to do. Let’s round it all up — and answer the big question: if writing about your problems simulates the experience of talking to a friend, then why not just talk to a friend?
Here’s the evening ritual that will make you happy and healthy:
- How long has it been? If you’re still in the midst of the problem or find thinking about it overwhelming, give it time. Come back to it in a month.
- Commit to at least four evenings of 15 minutes: Pick a time and place where nobody will bother you. Yes, you can hide in the bathroom if necessary.
- Write nonstop about the most upsetting moment of your life: Points will not be deducted for spelling or grammar. Don’t write for anyone but you.
- For extra credit: Focusing on feelings, tying in many aspects of your life, developing a narrative, and looking for cause and effect are all associated with better results. Make sense of it. Look for meaning.
We see a lot of stuff about how relationships are the key to health — heck, I’ve posted a lot about that. But here’s the part you don’t hear often: if you don’t open up to those friends about your problems, your relationships have zero health benefits.
In large surveys with corporate employees as well as college students, we find the same thing that other social support researchers have shown: the more friends you have, the healthier you are. However, this effect is due, almost exclusively, to the degree to which you have talked with your friends about any traumas that you have suffered. But here is the kicker. If you have had a trauma that you have not talked about with anyone, the number of friends you have is unrelated to your health.
So why write? Isn’t it just easier to talk to people?
Talking to friends is definitely preferable — but it’s not always safe. There are some damn good reasons not to open up to others about certain subjects. Some people are blabbermouths who won’t respect your secrets.
According to research by Bernard Rimé at the University of Louvain in Belgium, the average secret told in confidence is spread to at least two other people.
We need to feel safe to really open up. And feeling we’re not going to be judged is critical. When you feel punished for disclosing problems, your health gets worse.
Several studies have found that when people are punished for disclosing their traumatic experiences, their psychological and physical health suffers… Vanessa Juth and her colleagues assessed the health of over 200 bereaved individuals several years after their loss. Those people who reported feeling the greatest pressure from others to not talk about their loss were the people who reported the most mental and physical health problems.
This is why many people counterintuitively open up to bartenders or hairdressers instead of friends or family. In distance, there is safety. And there is complete safety and acceptance in writing.
Writing shouldn’t preclude you from getting support from friends — but when it doesn’t feel safe, the scribbled word is always there to help.
One more thing: it’s important to remember that your default is resilience. You deal pretty well with 99% of what happens to you. This is best proven by the simple fact that you don’t even remember most of what happens to you, let alone end up completely traumatized by it.
We used to have a culture that bottled up everything and that wasn’t a great idea, and now the pendulum has swung more toward everything being trauma and that’s not true or helpful either.
You’re tougher than you think. But every now and then things do happen that send us to the emotional ER, and maybe they’re too sensitive to share with a friend. That’s when writing can really help.
Okay, I’ve typed more than enough. Now it’s your turn.
You’re going to feel much, much better in 2019.
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