The therapeutic benefits of writing have been known for some time, though it has been called by several names such as narrative therapy, expressive writing, and journal writing, among others. James Pennebaker pioneered the idea of writing for therapeutic benefits in the 1980s, which was referred to at that time as expressive writing.
In the initial experiments by Pennebaker, he used an experimental group and a control group, both of whom wrote for 15 continuous minutes, repeated over four days. The experimental group was instructed to write about past traumas with emotional expression encouraged while the control group was instructed to write on neutral topics, focusing on factual information as much as possible (i.e., avoiding emotional or upsetting topics that were personally relevant).
One very interesting finding of the study was that the experimental group, relative to the control group, had far fewer physician visits in the months that followed. While they reported being upset by the experience, they found it valuable and meaningful. Due to such positive results, over 200 studies followed and the findings were successfully replicated. One interpretation of the findings is that expressive writing boosts the immune system as measured by increased lymphocyte response, suggesting expressive writing boosts immunocompetence. Other studies indicated a reduction in depression for those diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.
In my work as a psychologist, this benefit makes sense in light of the burden that our minds and bodies bear with unprocessed negative emotions. The link between stress or negative emotions and disease is also well documented in the literature and bears out the real physical cost associated with negative emotions that are not processed and released. While not everyone can afford a therapist (or wants one), expressive writing can at least alleviate some of the emotional cost we bear in uncertain and trying times. And given the pandemic we are facing, we are most certainly in trying times.
My encouragement is twofold. First, I encourage those who write professionally to add to the conversation in a positive way. Use your skills to write about ways to bring comfort to self and others. Describe how you are positively facing the challenges of social distancing, social isolation or "shelter in place" orders. The media has a job to do and I can appreciate the obligations of attempting to bring us "facts." However, more hysteria is promoted when people feast on the type of negativity that necessarily accompanies tragic and troubling events.
Second, I encourage everyone to take the time to write expressively for 15 minutes each day about how you are feeling and why. Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, being politically correct or even making sense, as this is for your eyes only. Simply express your deepest fears and concerns. Let your worries flow out of you and onto the page. Try to finish up with ideas of how you might benefit others who are equally in need. Once your 15 minutes are up, get up and close your journal. It's then time to focus on what you can do that is positive and helpful to yourself, your family, your neighbors and your community at large.
Let's do our best to make this a time of positive coping even in the midst of negative circumstances...because we can! Losing a loved one to the coronavirus will never, ever be positive. But what can be positive is how we give and receive love from those around us, how we work together in a state of crisis and how we do our best to comfort those who are grieving.
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