There’s therapeutic benefit in putting pen to paper.
There’s something about writing things down. As much as our mind would like to have us believe we have a great memory and the ability to process complex decisions in our head, the reality is that writing things down is different. Here are a few of the ways in which psychological research has shown it has benefits:
* People who write down just an intention to exercise over the next week are twice as likely to honour that intention – and that’s even before you get to the part where you actually plan the exercise! Simply writing ‘I intend to exercise three times this week’ makes you twice as likely to exercise. Stuff like this is why it’s so important to write your goals down.
*Struggling with making a decision? Writing a list of the good and bad things associated with each option has been shown to help people make decisions that they are less likely to regret later, compared with only thinking about the options.
* Students who wrote about ‘the most upsetting event of their entire life’ for 20 minutes a day, four days running, had better immune system functioning as well as improved emotional health, compared with students who wrote about something trivial.
As well as just writing about a traumatic event, increased benefits have been shown for writing about that trauma in a narrative form – structuring the facts, emotions, consequences etc. as a story with beginning, middle and end. Further benefits seem to come from telling that story in the third person (i.e. ‘she said’, rather than ‘I said’ even though you are writing about your own trauma) –the increased distance from the situation this style brings that helps you to view the situation with a clearer head.
Writing forces clarity and fosters objectivity. While you can fail to finish thoughts in your head, or think the same few things over and over again in a circle, when you put these thoughts onto paper and see them half-finished or repeating, it greatly improves your chances of stopping thinking that way. You realise that actually, although it feels overwhelming and dominates your thoughts, there are three bad things that happened today, no more, no less. This clarity helps you to move past the emotions and move forward with your life. The sense of meaning that comes with a story (in a fictional movie or book, we’re only witness to events which serve to further a plot or a character’s development) can help people to come to terms with a tragic event by weaving it into their larger life story. Plus most people love a happy ending: writing tragedy as a story, the temptation is to at least have the main character learn something about life and living from the experience.
Writing is also great for people who have thoughts, images and memories stuck in their mind that they can’t/ won’t share with others. Writing expresses these without having to invoke the vulnerability that comes with telling another person (which has its own benefits, but that’s for another post). Writing it down can be the first step to collecting and organising your thoughts in order to share with another later, too.
No matter where you are at with your life, writing can help you.
* If your life is going well, set some goals and write them down, and then watch your life get even better.
* If your life is in limbo while you make a big decision, use writing to weigh up the risks and benefits of each decision, and get some clarity on how to best move forward.
* if your life sucks right now, write about it, in order to help you process the negative thoughts and feelings you’re having, so they don’t get stuck inside and overwhelm you.
It doesn’t matter whether you use a computer, your phone or good ol’ pen and paper, writing can help you improve your current situation. So get writing now!
Want to let your friends and family know the benefits of writing? Share this post so they can use writing to their advantage too.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.