How writing can have positive impact in our lives

By Dimitra Didangelou, Psychologist, Science Journalist, Author *

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
– Anais Nin

Ever since I can remember myself, I have enjoyed writing anything – from homework to poetry. Most of all, I enjoyed writing in my diary. I adored the whole procedure. Being alone, my hand running across the white pages. The moment I opened my diary, a new world was made available for me to shape according to my choosing. I used stickers, I scribbled seemingly irrelevant words and phrases in the margins… What I write about today is very different in comparison to what I wrote about when I was a child, but the ritual is still the same.

What about confiding? However small or big an event may seem to a third party, our own thoughts and feelings on what has happened matter. Whether it is about a scolding teacher or about feeling anxious because I may be fired, the catharsis procedure stays the same. I think, feel, write about it and let it go.

When I started writing my diary, there was no way for me to imagine that on the other side of the world, in the United States of America, scientists were doing some research to verify the benefits of the writing project and evolve it into the science of therapeutic or expressive writing.

Expressive or therapeutic writing is the deliberate writing of experiences and personal events aiming to specific results. Pay special attention to the words “deliberate” and “specific results.” It is not always enough to start writing to find relief (Adams, 1999). It is important to have a purpose and for that reason, specific techniques are implemented by experts in that field.

Expressive writing can be practiced by anyone at any stage of his/her life. It can be of use both during calm and relaxed times of our lives. It can help us to enjoy our lives’ flow or help us cope during troubling times when we face difficulties or dilemmas. We can find peace working through our feelings (Progoff,1992).

Dr. James Pennebaker, professor at the University of Texas, has found after numerous studies that writing helps people organize their thoughts and find meaning in their traumatic experiences. Among the participants in his studies were HIV positive people, cancer patients and victims of sexual abuse and Vietnam veterans. He came to the conclusion that if they were able to find greater meaning in their difficulties, they would have a better chance to overcome them. Writing can help someone find meaning.

In what specific ways can we benefit from journal writing?

1. It helps us understand our past
Writing about my past helps me understand my present. Shining light on events and feelings from my childhood, I gain a complete self-image and I can understand my present reactions. A Chinese proverb says: “The palest ink is better than the strongest memory.”

2. It has a therapeutic effect
Among Dr. James Pennebaker’s list of results, we find: strengthening the immune system, lessening post-traumatic stress symptoms, improved feelings of depression, diminished anxious feelings, less/reduced obsessive thoughts and compulsions, reduced pain (Pennebaker, 2004).

3. It helps us organize and understand our lives
There are days that I feel time goes by very quickly and life slips through my fingers. When I write about whatever is going on, I feel as if I freeze time. When I make a list of the things I have to do within a week or a month I get the chance to bring some order to the everyday chaos.

4. It improves school and work performance
Research has shown that students get better grades when they have written an essay before the final exam. This may have something to do with writing releasing a part of the working memory which is responsible for working on complicated tasks (Klein & Boals, 2001, Cameron & Nicholls, 1998). The same is true for our job tasks.

5. It increases our sociability
Recent research has shown that people who wrote about their traumatic experiences, talked to other people more often, laughed more and used more words related to positive feelings. Expressive writing seemed to make them more relaxed in social situations/settings, better listeners and friends (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001).

6. It increases our chances to get a job
In one of his studies, Dr. Pennebaker asked middle-aged unemployed men to write about their feelings, their anger and their thoughts. The control group was just writing about how they spent their time. Eight months later, 52% of the group who wrote about their feelings had found new jobs in comparison to a mere 20% of the control group (Pennebaker, 2004).

7. It raises our level of consciousness
When I gather memories, feelings, words, phrases, and images on a piece of paper I get a feeling of shaping my life. It helps me get a complete view on/of who I am and what my purpose in life is.

8. It increases our productivity
Harvard Business School researcher Teresa Amabile discovered that when people record even the smallest of their achievements they feel more committed to their work, productive and aware of the purpose of their toil. They tend to work more consciously (Amabile, 2011).

9. It makes us better balanced and calm
Writer and poet Ralph Emerson often stressed the allure of depending our existence on factors such as luck, property, circumstance and other peoples’ expectations of us. In order to get rid of such bondage he recommended strengthening our inner world. By strengthening our inner life we shall become less affected by what goes on outside. To quote Emerson: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” Writing is an excellent way to contact ourselves and our inner world, eventually finding balance.

10. It makes us wiser
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio claims that our notion of wisdom is, in fact, our ability to understand where our feelings stem from and learn from them. Writing helps us examine our feelings, interpret them and reach closer to our innermost wisdom—another reason to take up writing.

11. It boosts our self confidence
After minimizing our resistance and reserve towards the paper, we may come across a pleasant surprise. We will soon find out a safe warm place to express our thoughts and feelings that may boost our self-esteem and strengthen our self-respect.

12. It boosts our creativity
I think no further explanation is needed. Do you have anything better in mind?

Bibliography:
Adams, K. (1999). Writing as therapy. Counseling & Human Development. Denver: Love Publishing.
Amabile, T. M., and St. J. Kramer. (2011). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Harvard Business Review Press.
Cameron, L.D., and G. Nicholls.1998. Expression of stressful experiences through writing: Effects of a self-regulation manipulation for pessimists and optimists. Health Psychology 17: 84-92.
Klein, K.A., and K.N. Miner. (2000). Writing about the perceived benefits of traumatic events: Implications for physical health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26: 220 – 330.
Pennebaker, J.W.. (2004). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Pennebaker, J.W., and A. Graybeal. (2001). Patterns of natural language use: Disclosure, personality, and social integration. Current Directions in Psychological Science: 90-93.
Progoff, I. (1992). At a Journal Workshop. New York: Tarcher.

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Dimitra_Didangelou_19_small * Dimitra Didangelou is a psychologist, science journalist and author (MSc Media Psychology).

She has worked as a journalist for more than twelve years in order to raise public awareness about mental health issues. Over recent years, she has additionally worked as a certified psychologist. Through expressive writing techniques, Dimitra helps people to bring balance in their lives and increase self- awareness.

She works with individuals and groups through the internet, having participants from all over the world. To paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, she believes that “the limits of our world are the limits of the internet connection.”

When not working online, she grounds herself and finds balance between virtual and real life, by facilitating workshops which take place in nature, as it’s a way to come closer to our authentic and creative self.

She’s the founder of “Psyche” (www.empowerpsyche.org), which offers workshops promoting mental health and includes a psychology web magazine.

She’s a published author of a novel and many short stories.

Her training includes Advanced Study in Therapeutic Writing (The Center for Journal Writing in Denver, CO, USA), a Master of Science Degree in Psychology and Mass Media, a Bachelor Degree in Psychology and a Certificate in Philosophical Counselling and Psychotherapy.

She’s a member of the Movement for Global Mental Health, the International Association for Journal Writing and the Science View.

Learn more about Dimitra Didangelou here:

https://about.me/DimitraDidangelou

TEDx Speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNsHMEwNm2w

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dimitra.didangelou
Twitter: https://twitter.com/DidangelouD

 

If you have any inquiries about expressive writing, you can contact Dimitra at:
dimitra@empowerpsyche.org

 

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