For centuries, the oral tradition of storytelling has kept myth and legend alive in the hearts and minds of humans. The story’s cathartic ability to strike a chord in humanity transformed the experience of life onto the page. The rise of popularity of the memoir, part personal history but delivered like fiction, in modern times is no small part due to the audience’s identification with the facts of life melded seamlessly with the captivation of a novel, a story. In her book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives Louise DeSalvo delves into the emotional and physical health benefits that writing regularly can have on a person. If we write about past traumatic experiences that our subconscious spends energy to suppress, our body’s defenses are improved by removing subconscious stress.
“Creative energy tends to be self-renewing, and to produce its own chain reaction of health, and further effort.” – Colin Wilson
DeSalvo hones in on a study done by James W. Pennebaker’s record of experiments performed while teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas with his associate Sandra Bell. In this study, students who wrote for 20 minutes a day, for only four days, experienced deep rooted negative emotions connected to their past traumatic experiences. However, and here is the remarkable discovery, four months later those same students reported a significant improvement of their emotions toward past traumatic experiences which helped them resolve difficult issues like the death of a loved one, sexual abuse, or a parent’s divorce. Their present discomfort significantly impacted their spirits long term.
Now, back up a second. You might be thinking, “I am not a writer,” or perhaps, “I have no time, no desire to confront my past, no [fill in the blank] to write.” This anxiety for amateur and professional writers is completely natural, especially when writing (not just journaling!) about past traumatic experiences can bring back emotions that have been shut away and effect our immediate state of mind. The more days that people write, the more beneficial the effects from writing are. And here is the great part: these positive effects are not dependent upon sharing your writing with others or getting feedback! To be clear, while writing is cheap and easy, it is no substitute for professional help.
After reading DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing, I was taken aback. I had always heard that writing, the act of recreating our story, has cathartic value for our hearts. I had never seen any evidence that writing about our experiences could actually improve physical health! Right now, I am sitting in bed with the flu after re-reading parts of DeSalvo’s book and all I can think about is this: “If it has health benefits, I’m up for it!” Are you? Post your thoughts on Pennebaker’s study or on DeSalvo’s take on the emotional and health benefits of writing in her book Writing as a Way of Healing below!