Writing is my passion. Whether working on my next book, drafting a new post to share with my community, or crafting a client’s story, I fill my days with words that I hope will help souls better express their purpose and desired journey in our world.
And yet, my relationship to writing began rather desperately. The blank, non-judgmental, ever-listening pages of a journal were where I learned to witness myself. Whenever I felt pent up emotionally, or physically angsty, or completely frustrated by my own mind, I turned to writing. Most times, the act of writing was a release.
Like a real, physical release. I felt different after I wrote.
Even still today, after almost every writing session I feel lighter, less stressed, and more engaged with my sense of Self and my purpose.
All of this has lead me to wonder, what’s really happening to me when I write?
What does modern research know about what is happening in my body when I’m writing that may lead me to feel the ways I feel?
Are there scientific reasons — or even presumed health benefits — that I’m not aware of?
Today, I wanted to do some deep research and share with you some of what modern scientific studies and surveys have found as potential health benefits to regular, purposeful writing.
As a teacher of writing and a professional writer, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m biased in wanting the research to validate what I’ve personally felt to be true. And yet, regardless of my personal opinion, I hope this research (and research to come) continues to help us all understand the potential benefits of artistry and self-expression.
What You Write Matters
I’ve always assumed that the act of writing is cathartic, as if unburdening one’s mind of words has some sort of physical release. But is that true? Or is it what one writes that really matters?
According to Harvard University, writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma.
Simply expressing one’s emotions about past traumatic events may alleviate some of those symptoms. A number of limited studies, particularly with college students, indicate that over a 6-month time frame the participants “visited the campus health center less often, and used a pain reliever less frequently, than those who wrote about inconsequential matters.”
In related studies, expressive writing had shown improvements in asthma and arthritis symptoms; increased immune system functioning for HIV/AIDS patients; and decreased stress levels for a variety of demographics.
According to the American Psychological Association, writing about traumatic or stressful experiences can also increase overall life satisfaction, and was shown to increase both mental and physical health.
There are caveats, however.
For example, if a participant was writing about an ongoing stress or hardship, writing about it may actually trigger stress and anxiety.
It’s also important that a written reflection is thoughtfully expressed, not just a lashing-out of emotions.
Think of this approach as a way of taking stock in things — offering one’s own self a healthy sense of perspective. Try not to just dump any and every deep, dark thought you’ve ever had — research shows the latter may antagonize struggle and suffering.
Therapy is also shown to be very helpful in conjunction with expressive writing.
And, interestingly (for all writers, I think),there was an indication that the process of starting expressive writing temporarily increased the stress levels and physical unease in participants. However, when those symptoms faded, participants reported an increased sense of positivity and wellbeing.
Even HOW You Write Matters
As it turns out, it’s not just what you write about, but also how you’re sitting when you write that matters.
My friend Sarah Kathleen Peck first taught me about how body posture can trigger emotional response in the brain.
Just as smiling when you’re in a sour mood is shown to help you feel happier, the same goes for body posture. Including those of writers.
Think of how we typically write over a keyboard or a journal: hunched over, shoulders inching towards the ears. This is the body posture of shame and isolation.
According to Ohio State University, sitting up straight while pressing one’s chest out somewhat can actually inspire biological responses in the body to make you feel more confident. Conversely, slumping over in your chair can trigger feelings of doubt, loneliness and insecurity.
Slouching — whether in writing, or otherwise — is believed to also lead to feelings of helplessness, which may cause you to be less persistent with complicated tasks.
Another randomized study from the University of Auckland in New Zealand reported that participants who sat up tall not only reported a better mood and higher self esteem than those who sat slouched over, but that they used more positive language, were less self-focused, and displayed less fear.
So if your words are a bit too melancholy for your taste, try sitting in a more upright and proud shape.
The Research Says, Writing Can Help.
Possibly. Probably. Maybe. Who knows.
And it’s clear that reflective writing is not a magic pill that will instantly cure any and all woes — or, that it should replace therapy or traditional medicine. And yet, there’s plenty of research today lending to the theory that expressive writing and self-reflection can help lead to increased well-being.
In these studies, the writing is always used as a way to develop a stronger relationship to yourself.
Writing functions as a tool throughout these studies, but it’s a tool used to process, learn from, and better understand one’s own self. That includes shadows, struggles, and past traumas. It includes observing emotional states and giving a voice to one’s desires, goals and dreams.
It’s never about word-count or output.
What you’re writing (and how you’re writing) really does matter.
P.S. — As you should be well aware, this website is designed for educational and informational purposes only and does not render medical advice or professional services. The information provided through this website should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have — or suspect you may have — a health problem, you should consult your health care provider. If you are struggling, reach out to a friend, loved one, or therapist or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which is open 24 hours a day, at 1-800-273-8255. Don’t be afraid to ask for help — or to receive it. Take care, and know that you’re loved. Thanks.