by Jessica Murphy
“An untold story is an unexamined experience;
without the telling, its significance is diminished or lost” (Downs 303)
It sounds contradictory, but it’s true: Writing about disturbing experiences can promote well-being by helping us do the following:
- develop the ability to identify, understand, and express our emotions and those of others
- strengthen our critical thinking, self-assessment, and writing skills
- cultivate a sense of control over and find meaning in our lives
- reduce stress, negative emotions, and illness
- boost confidence and encourage empathy in other
Guy Allen calls this “the healing power of writing,” the way it allows writers to confront, understand, and overcome unresolved psychological and emotional damage (84). Not everyone agrees; Andrew Holleran criticizes the practice as only forcing writers “to relive [their] anxiety and depression" (qtd. in Nye 387). Some research does suggest that writing about emotional experiences may not benefit some individuals; one study conducted in Israel among PTSD patients found that participants who wrote about their experiences worsened compared to the control participants, an effect attributed to the "absence of cognitive and/or coping skills training" (Pennebaker 16).
But the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks. This practice helps us develop “emotional intelligence,” the ability to identify, understand, and express emotions in ourselves and others. We become more capable of overcoming emotional inhibition, the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge our emotions. Not only does emotional inhibition cause stress and increase the probability of illness (Nye 395), but it also isolates us by creating a disconnect in communication and understanding (Pennebaker 14-5). But by writing about these experiences, we can process them, freeing up our attention to focus on more important aspects of our lives.
Addressing these disturbing experiences is important because they affect not only our emotional health but our mental and physical health as well. A study published in the journal Nature shows that when we undergo intense emotional experiences, we release stress hormones that enhance our memory of the experience for “survival value” in case the same experience reoccurs (qtd. in MacCurdy 164). This explains why emotional events can haunt us for years. Grief, for example, can cause guilt, anger, loneliness, feelings of abandonment, and vulnerability, all of which can disrupt the stability of our daily life, including our sleeping and eating patterns. As a result, we invest energy into maintaining a sense of control, which causes fatigue when combined with disrupted sleep patterns (Bosticco and Thompson 256).
If unresolved, negative emotions can damage our long-term health; individuals who do not resolve feelings of helplessness can develop “learned helplessness” in which they assume they cannot change situations. In these cases, unresolved trauma can lead to anxiety and depression (Bosticco and Thompson 268).
Writing about an unresolved emotional experience serves two purposes:
- It encourages us to analyze our experiences and choose how we react to them.
- It improves both our writing and critical thinking skills by requiring us to remember, analyze, and synthesize information into a clear, coherent narrative.
Organizing an experience into a simplified narrative allows us to recognize patterns in our thought processes, behaviors, and overall identity. In his essay “Writing about Suicide,” Jeffrey Berman describes a course in which he asked students to write anonymous diary entries so the students could express themselves in a safe environment. One student found that his entries gave him “a basic awareness of how [his] mind operates” (qtd. in Berman 302). Complex events require more effort to examine and organize because they affect multiple aspects of our life; being left by a lover can affect our relationships, finances, self-perceived identity, and daily routines (Pennebaker 11).
The writing process can also help us recover or strengthen our sense of identity. In her essay “‘The More I Tell My Story’: Writing as Healing in an HIV/AIDS Community,” Emily Nye describes working with members of a writing group at an AIDS center to analyze how writing about their disease affected them (386). Most stories included a "turning point" in which writers identified or created meanings in their lives. One member found that fulfilling his lifelong wish to become a DJ made him realize he still had the opportunity to achieve long-term goals, which boosted his self-esteem. Another member met a woman who stayed with him despite his diagnosis, which showed him that society still valued and supported him (Nye 403). By describing and analyzing their experiences with AIDS, the group members identified new meanings that gave their lives a sense of purpose.
Once we examine an experience’s effects on us, we can gain control over our thoughts and behavior by choosing how to react to the experience. Part of the distress caused by unresolved emotional experiences comes not only from the events themselves but also from the individual's emotional reactions to them (Pennebaker 8). In the previous example, writing about their disease gave the patients a sense of control over "the drastic interruption of a life of meaning and purpose by an illness that often seems arbitrary, cruel, and senseless" (Hawkins 224).
In another experiment, participants were randomly assigned to either an experimental group or a control group and told to write for fifteen minutes a day for four days. Members of the experimental group were told to write their "deepest thoughts and feelings" about the most traumatic experience of their lives and encouraged to connect their topics to their relationships with family members, lovers, and friends; to their past, present, or future; or to who they were, who they wanted to be, or who they were at the time (qtd. in Pennebaker 4). This encouraged the participants to reflect upon how those experiences influenced their thoughts and behavior.
Most participants considered the experience "extremely valuable and meaningful," and 98 percent of the experimental participants said that "if given the choice, they would participate in the study again" (Pennebaker 4). In addition, students who often submitted weak academic essays wrote coherent, grammatically correct essays about their personal experiences, which may suggest that writing about personal topics provides an additional incentive to engage ourselves in our writing and improve our skills. Further, the experimental group’s participants’ visits to the university health center fell "drastically" compared to the control participants (Pennebaker 5).
Other studies from around the world link this writing practice to improved overall health, including improved immune function, reduced pain and medication use among arthritis sufferers, improvements in asthmatics' lung function, and lower levels of depression in students taking exams. These benefits span across a variety of professions, classes, and racial/ethnic groups (Pennebaker 5, 16). Writing about disturbing experiences did upset participants for several hours after writing, but they reported feeling "as happy as or happier than" control participants two weeks after the study (Pennebaker 6). In another study, hostile and suspicious individuals benefited more than individuals who lacked these traits (Pennebaker 6).
Writing benefits us specifically because it requires cognitive processing. If the benefit stemmed from self-expression, then other forms of self-expression should produce the same benefits. Yet research suggests that only forms of self-expression that require cognitive processing produce benefits; neither using expressive movement nor exercising showed the "significant improvements in physical health and grade point average" as did the same activity combined with writing (Pennebaker 8).
The cognitive processing that writing requires also produces literary benefits, such as strengthening our creative and reflective writing skills. Descriptive language, for example, overlaps with therapy: using specific sensory images requires the writer to remember details from their experience and thus bring the experience more fully into their consciousness (MacCurdy 167). The students who wrote diary entries wrote more than they expected, and their writing tended to be “insightful and eloquent” (Berman 310).
Writing also enhances our ability to connect to literature and real-life contexts. Analyzing and discussing their experiences with suicide made Berman’s students less likely to romanticize suicide in literature than students in other classes, and one student wrote that the context of the diary entries and class discussions made his reading assignments seem “so much more real” and that he felt closer to Virginia Woolf than he had felt before taking the course ((Berman 300, 309).
Writing about emotional experiences helps us understand and resolve disturbing experiences, but sharing our work with others benefits us, too, by boosting confidence and encouraging empathy in both ourselves and our audience. Hearing how other people react to emotional experiences gives the audience the confidence to risk writing about more personal experiences. For instance, when Berman read the anonymous diary entries aloud, the students showed an interest in and identified with the entries, developing collaborative trust or “distanced intimacy” (Berman 294). One student wrote that hearing his classmates’ stories makes him feel as though he were vicariously experiencing the events. As a result, whenever he sees his classmates, he feels concern for them even though he does not know which entry was theirs (Berman 303). Also, seeing his classmates’ interest in his entry made him feel much less ambivalent about attending class; the same connection might be said about the connection between depression, isolation, and suicide (Berman 302).
Writing about disturbing experiences can give us a greater sense of control and help us move from passive suffering to active healing (qtd. in Nye 411). By reflecting upon our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, we can change how we react to events and gain a better sense of control over our lives. As D.H. Lawrence said, “one sheds one[’s] sicknesses in books—repeats and presents again one[’s] emotions to be master of them” (qtd. in Berman 291).
For the Works Cited information, please refer to the comments.