"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest." -- Confucius
I have always been a proponent of writing. The connections between the words that we speak as well as the words we commit to paper are profoundly connected to our feelings and health. I consistently integrate writing exercises and journaling strategies into my workshops and coaching engagements, but anyone can use writing practices to boost their emotional resilience. Recently I came across a powerful writing tool called expressive writing. The expressive writing process has received a great deal of attention over the years, after psychology professor James Pennebaker discovered extraordinary results from an experiment that would inspire a generation of researchers to conduct hundreds of studies.
The expressive writing process goes something like this:
Step one and two: For two days in a row, you write for twenty minutes about an emotionally charged experience. You must write about the event in terms of your emotions around the experience -- how it affected you at the time it occurred and how you feel about it now. The next (third) step is to write about the experience for about the same period of time from a different perspective. This could be from the perspective of someone else who was there at the time or from the perspective of you in the present observing that "younger you." The third person writing seems to be one of the most potent aspects of the process. The subtle shift from a subjective voice to an objective voice offers you the opportunity to discover new aspects of your story that can be powerful and eye-opening. The final and fourth step is to write about the story you would like to be able to tell, as you move forward into your future.
Throughout this process, Pennebaker maintains that the writer should never push themselves to write about something that is too sensitive or emotionally charged -- and to get professional help if need be.
However, if you feel ready to deal with a particular situation, and are compelled to try expressive writing, the results may be well worth the effort.
Researchers in the field of psychoneuroimmunology have been investigating a very viable connection between expressive writing and the functioning of the immune system. In a recent podcast with co-author (along with James Pennebaker) of the book "Expressive Writing: Words that Heal," John Evans Ph.D. stated that studies have shown expressive writing can decrease inflammation and help ease chronic pain -- and can reduce the number of times people visit the doctor.
Evans maintains that if you continue to live with the same negative story, you get stuck in the unhealthy experience, and create a "worn path" in the brain. But expressive writing may be able to calm and re-route the nervous system. "Even once the writing process is complete, your mind keeps working on things in the background," he affirms. "Once you have reframed your story in concrete terms and committed it to paper, you've given it a frame that you can then assimilate."
Reluctant writers also benefit a great deal from the expressive writing process, possibly even more so than seasoned writers, as the writing is more authentic and "deeply connected to who they are," Evans observes.
Expressive writing can also improve relationships and is an extremely useful tool for high-stress workers such as first-responders and healthcare personnel. However, the most common -- and dramatic -- results are seen in terms of overall health. Research shows that the practice seems to boost the immune system, resulting in enhanced overall wellbeing.
So pick up that pen and commit your words to paper. You can't change an emotionally charged event or what you felt at the time it occurred, but you do have a choice to change your story as you move forward, into a brighter future.