Expressive Writing for Healing

 

poem

Mary’s poetry, age 16

 

I have a history of writing my way through difficult periods in my life, with angst-ridden poetry in my teens, through a manuscript I completed during my husband’s cancer treatment in 2006, and blogging about grief after my mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death in 2010. I’d assumed the reason I turned to the journaling format as I mourned my husband in 2012 was because it came naturally as a writer. Weeks into my grief journey, however, I wondered how anyone could survive the experience without writing about it.
Through research, I discovered that expressive writing can be a powerful healing tool for anyone, not just writers. Dr. James Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, is often lauded as the pioneer in studying expressive writing as a route to healing. He discusses his findings in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressive Emotions, revealing how short-term, focused writing can have a beneficial effect for anyone dealing with stress or trauma.

pennebaker
In his original study in the late 1980s, college students wrote for twenty minutes on four consecutive days about the most traumatic or upsetting experiences of their lives, while control subjects wrote about superficial topics. Those in the experimental group showed marked improvement in immune-system functioning and had fewer visits to the health center in the months following the study.

Pennebaker’s original expressive writing paradigm has been replicated in hundreds of studies since then, each measuring different potential effects of expressive writing. Not only has subsequent research confirmed his original finding regarding physical well-being, writing about emotionally charged topics has also been shown to improve mental health, reducing symptoms of depression or anxiety. This has proven true in studies with those who have experienced loss, veterans experiencing PTSD, as well as cancer patients. Expressive writing is now an accepted holistic and nonmedicinal method for wellness.

expressive writing
For anyone new to expressive writing, I include these suggestions for beginning the practice in my newly-released journal Expressive Writing for Healing and through the workshops I conduct:
1. Choose a notebook or journal that fits your personality, that you can comfortably write in. A beautiful leather-bound journal might be too intimidating to begin with. Perhaps it will be a journal with a cover that has special meaning to you; a butterfly, dragonfly, or a Bible verse. Or maybe you’ll prefer to begin with a simple notebook with pages that can easily be torn out. Just the physical act of handwriting can be therapeutic, but if you are more comfortable writing on a computer, that works too.
2. There are no rules for journal writing. Cross out sentences, scribble on the sides of the paper, doodle or draw on the pages. Don’t worry about sentence structure or grammar. This writing is for you and not an audience. You can’t help yourself if you’re holding back, afraid to be honest about what you’re feeling. Feelings and emotions can be messy, so it’s perfectly fine if your journal is, too.
3. Write down your dreams, both literal and figurative. Do you have dreams and desires for your future? Write them down. In a couple of years, you may look back and see some of those dreams have become reality. Our subconscious also works hard at processing significant changes in our life. Have you had any particularly vivid nighttime dreams? Write those down, too. I’ve solved daytime dilemmas and come up with wonderful ideas in my dreams, so I like to keep a notebook by the bed to jot them down.
4. If you are reading inspirational books or articles, copy passages or quotes that speak to you. When I read something particularly inspiring or uplifting that resonates with me, I copy pertinent passages or quotes in my journal. I’ve often referred to those past journals and can still find inspiration and encouragement from the words I chose to transcribe. C.S. Lewis once wrote “We read to know we are not alone.”
5. Date your journal entries and try to end them on a positive note. Can you find even one thing to be grateful for each time you journal? By ending your journal entry on a positive note—with words of thanks or perhaps a prayer—you are training yourself to consciously choose joy and gratitude. Some people like to keep a separate gratitude journal, listing little blessings and good things that happen each day. This practice works because it forces you to intentionally focus your attention on grateful thinking, eliminating unwanted, ungrateful thoughts and guarding against taking things or people for granted. You want gratitude to become a habit, so practicing it in your journal helps that happen.

Mary graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. A certified grief counselor and founder of the annual Heal Your Grief retreat in Dubuque, Iowa, Mary conducts Expressive Writing for Healing workshops for churches, libraries, community colleges or grief support groups. Contact her at marypotterkenyon@gmail.com for more information. 

 

Book Review: The Power to Be

“If I keep my attention on my problems and heartaches they become overwhelming to me and tend to control my life. But if I fix my thoughts on God, he becomes magnified in my heart and mind, and I’m reminded of who he is and what he’s able to do.”

So writes Twila Belk in her newest devotional, The Power to Be: A 40-Day Devotional: Be Still, Be Grateful, Be Strong, Be Courageous. 

power to be

This lovely little book doesn’t have to be utilized as a 40-day devotional. I finished it in one evening, copying down quotes from Twila that inspired or encouraged me. I have the same wall plaque she mentions hanging in her living room, though mine is in my bedroom.

Happy moments- praise God. Difficult moments- seek God. Quiet moments- worship God. Painful moments- trust God. Every moment- Thank God. 

Knowing the difficulties the author has experienced in her life gives credence to her words. It doesn’t get more real than this.

I happened to pick up The Power to Be exactly when I needed it, as I’m facing some challenges in my own life. I love the quotes and the Bible verses, including my current life verse Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path.

This book would make a wonderful gift for Mother’s Day, or a pick-me-up for someone you know who is going through a difficult time.

Learn more about the author at www.gottatellsomebody.com