Whenever I can’t sleep — whenever I’m thinking of tossing and turning, the words rounding my brain like pinballs, smashing themselves to nonsensical fragments — I open the draw of my bedside table and pull out my diary.
Okay, I say “whenever.” Sometimes I don’t do it. In fact, most often, it’s a sort of last resort. Even though I work as a writer every day, something about turning to writing for help often feels strangely … intimate.
But whenever I do — whether it’s a single abstract line or paragraphs of verbatim detail from my day — I find something lifting from my chest, belly, brain, heart — wherever that heaviness sits.
The links between writing and mental health are well documented, though mostly anecdotally.
Practitioners have used expressive writing in hospitals, psychiatric facilities, prisons, schools, care homes — the exercise has been commonplace since the 1980s — as a technique for drawing trauma out, beginning to heal its insidious effects, improving mood and social function. The ripple effects of expressive writing are tough to study empirically because they are so various and far-reaching.
In James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung’s paper, “Expressive Writing: Connections to Physical and Mental Health,” a gathering together of many previous, niche studies leads them to the conclusion that writing, especially about emotional subjects, brings about “consistent and significant health improvements.” They call it the “disclosure phenomenon.”
But we don’t need to “go to therapy,” to get these therapeutic effects into our everyday lives.
There are many ways that a regular writing practice can tweak and calm the way we feel and even the ways we behave and relate with other people.
The journal is a long-standing attendant of organised counselling. Even in the GP’s surgery, keeping a diary of how you feel is a common request. It doesn’t seem terribly out of the blue or intrusive to ask for a written record of the duration and intensity of your headache, for example. Yet, when in the non-clinical world of home, we often lose the will to write things down.
Keeping a diary is a pastime often associated with children, or adolescents. The padlocked notebook, a symbol of the protective teenager. But diary-keeping is a far more powerful and wide-reaching tool for life. By regularly pausing the flow of experiences and thoughts in order to write, we expand our ability to see, re-angle, re-enter, and reshape our narratives.
Other forms of writing have also been shown to be beneficial for mood. The humble thank-you note, for example, can form the site of powerful mental healing for both writer and recipient.
Moreover, the catharsis of writing can be multiplied when the writer shares what she’s written with others. According to the same Pennebaker study, one of the reasons why expressive writing is so effective as a therapeutic tool is that, once written down, an emotional statement or memory becomes much easier to share. Patients who practice expressive writing are more likely and able to talk to others about how they’re feeling.
The act of writing performs a kind of unlocking.
The same goes for social media. It’s often reviled for being an overwhelming and consumptive presence in our lives, and many studies suggest its degenerative effects on our mental health. But there are also studies that suggest that using social media in an active way to communicate can be healing.
Active is the crucial word here. It is the passive taking-in of social media’s ungovernable stimuli that seems to cause most problems; it creates a kind of spiritual stress fracture. But writing expressively — actively — via social platforms has been shown to increase empathy and lessen social isolation, a finding that has long been associated with reading.
“I’m using this story, among other things, as a way of finding out what I mean by this idea.” Philip Pullman said in a recent interview with The New Yorker. “I’m writing into darkness.”
Pullman writes to discover the story; the act of writing to increase wellbeing is just the same — we can write as a way of discovering for ourselves what we mean. And by writing together, we can find ourselves better able to share what we mean with those around us.
To write into darkness isn’t to dwell in the darkness, it’s to form light out of it, or at least to swing a lamp around and illuminate the darkness, so that it begins to have form, texture — it begins to be known to us.
Writing for Wellbeing, a new safe space online with Georgina Parfitt, starts in January 2020. Click here for more details or to enrol.