After 2020, everyone could use writing to heal

A few days ago I wrote a post to commemorate the 16th anniversary of my stroke. One of the articles I linked to in that post, a piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Year We Lost,” explores the many things we didn’t get to do in 2020. It also takes something away from those who managed the year through writing.

It was “a year without parties,” a year that “paused many people‚Äôs progress on long-plotted family and career goals,” writes Joe author Pinsker. When I originally read the piece, it nicely summed up what I was getting at in that part of my post, which was the idea that at a time when so many people have lost so much, thinking about what I almost lost but didn’t felt shallow. In the days since I linked to this piece, I’ve kept thinking about this one line in Pinsker’s article:

The year 2020 has given more to the authors of history textbooks than it has to the writers of diaries.

It’s the first line, so it has to be catchy and hooky and give people something to think about. I’m a writer. I get it. But as someone who has studied the value of therapeutic writing or writing about trauma (that stroke, man, it keeps popping up), I think this line doesn’t quite give “writers of diaries” or the diaries themselves a place of value. I get this, too. The belief that the arts have healing power isn’t as widespread as this artist would like. However, if there is any way I see myself making a difference in the world, it is spreading the word that writing is a coping mechanism anyone can use — to great effect.

We may not have done all the things we wanted, or any of the things we wanted in 2020, but those who turned to diaries to track their despair and how they felt about it may have found a way to get through the letdown of a year with a better sense of well-being. People who journal may have had fewer “fun” things to write about this year, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have anything to write about.

Over the past forty years, research has found that writing about traumatic events and how one feels about them helps lower blood pressure. It helps boost the immune system. Expressive writing can help people sleep better and even perhaps “get over” the trauma and even physically heal sooner.

That’s right. Writing can help people heal.

If you’ve click into any of the links I’ve shared in the paragraph above, you’ll see that the fount of this wisdom and research comes from psychology professor James Pennebaker. In the mid-eighties he found that students who spent 20 minutes a day for four days writing about a significant trauma were healthier after this practice than their peers who did not write about their significant traumas. Pennebaker has worked with hundreds, if not thousands of students since then; other researchers have taken the idea and explored various intricacies of it in different studies. The research keeps stacking up: If people are able to write honestly about bad things they’ve experienced, and if these same people reflect on how they felt about the experience or how they feel about it now, they process the event and work through it in ways others don’t.

In his 1990 book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker spends time unpacking his inspiration, the studies he’s conducted and what he’s learned up to that point in his career. The information is compelling, his writing is engaging and he covers a lot of psychological, physical and mental health topics. I first learned about Pennebaker’s work in 2005, when my mom, a therapist, gave me a journal detailing his process of writing to heal. I’d always believed there was cathartic value in writing, but learning there was science behind it was validating. I didn’t need that science to nudge me into writing, or to benefit from my writing, but being able to tell others that it was proven to make a difference was amazing.

Years later, when I entered grad school, one of the biggest projects I spent time on (outside of my thesis) was immersing myself in Pennebaker’s work and getting caught up on what had taken place in the field of expressive writing between the 80s and the mid-2000s. I can’t say I’m an expert on his work–that would require working with him, I think– but I spend a lot of time talking him up to my students who seem like they could benefit from his work, either personally or because of their desired professions. And I’m excited to be presenting on it at virtual conference at the end of January. I’ll introduce people to his work, the theories behind it and what has been discovered about expressive writing. Then I’ll lead people through a little exercise of their own, hopefully equipping them with some strategies and tools to harness the power of writing. As a a writing instructor, I believe part of my job goes beyond just teaching people what they are in class to learn. If I see a chance to share something like this with them, I go for it. Doesn’t mean I’m an expert, but I do think I can be a resource and example for those wanting to know more about writing to heal.

If you’d like to check out Pennebaker’s book mentioned above, here’s a sample chapter from the third edition, published (and posted online) by Guilford Press.

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