An important part of living responsibly and in a healthy way is knowing how to take proper care of yourself. Most of us know that we must exercise and eat properly to stay in shape and be healthy. But, there is another kind of self care that is not discussed as often: mental and emotional exercise. Just like your body, your mind needs care and attention as well. One of the main ways of accomplishing this is through writing. As Mr. Sacks so eloquently hinted at above, writing has numerous mental, emotional, and even physical benefits.
The list of benefits is extensive and the therapeutic effects of writing have been studied for several decades:
Experiments going back to the 1980s have shown that 'therapeutic' or 'expressive' writing can reduce depression, increase productivity and even cut down on visits to the doctor. The act of writing is more powerful than people think.
In one particular study, writing about stressful life events was even effective at fighting serious illnesses such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis:
Patients were assigned to write either about the most stressful event of their lives (n=71; 39 asthma, 32 rheumatoid arthritis) or about emotionally neutral topics
Experimental group participants showed greater rates of improvement and lesser rates of worsening than the control group across both diseases
Writing about stressful life experiences improves physician ratings of disease severity and objective indices of disease severity in chronically ill patients
Of evaluable patients 4 months after treatment, asthma patients in the experimental group showed improvements in lung function (the mean percentage of predicted forced expiratory volume in 1 second [FEV] improved from 63.9% at baseline to 76.3% at the 4-month follow-up; P<.001), whereas control group patients showed no change.
Rheumatoid arthritis patients in the experimental group showed improvements in overall disease activity
Results confirm the hypothesis that writing about emotionally traumatic experiences reduced symptoms in individuals with chronic illness.Additionally, a meta-analysis of all the studies on this topic found numerous other benefits associated with expressive writing:
Longer-term benefits of expressive writing
- Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor
- Improved immune system functioning
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improved lung function
- Improved liver function
- Fewer days in hospital
- Improved mood/affect
- Feeling of greater psychological well-being
- Reduced depressive symptoms before examinations
- Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms
Social and behavioural outcomes
- Reduced absenteeism from work
- Quicker re-employment after job loss
- Improved working memory
- Improved sporting performance
- Higher students’ grade point average
- Altered social and linguistic behaviour
Medical conditions that might benefit from expressive writing programmes
If all of the above wasn't convincing enough evidence, one should also consider that
- Lung functioning in asthma
- Disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis
- Pain and physical health in cancer
- Immune response in HIV infection
- Hospitalisations for cystic fibrosis
- Pain intensity in women with chronic pelvic pain
- Sleep-onset latency in poor sleepers
- Post-operative course
the effects produced by expressive writing are substantial and similar in magnitude to the effects of other psychological interventions, many of which are more involved, time-consuming and expensive.
Writing also provides you with a sense of control because it's a
formalized form of thinking [and it] helps [you] derive information from [your] experiences that helps [you] guide [your] perceptions, actions, thoughts and emotions in the present. Drawing specific, causal conclusions about life’s important events may also help reduce the burden of uncertainty and threat that may remain active.
Essentially, writing is a practical and easy way of understanding what is happening to you and it allows you to feel like you're an active participant in your life instead of a passenger who's not in the driver's seat. Such an increasing sense of control is essential for attaining healthy self esteem and the confidence to take on challenges. It also allows you to more effectively deal with uncertainty.
Ultimately, our first line of defense against mental and emotional difficulties is ourselves. If there is a low-commitment and practical way of taking care of ourselves, we need to utilize it whenever possible. By no means am I cautioning against relying on mental health professionals. Such experts have a role to play as well, especially for more serious cases. But, we should still take personal initiative in addressing mental problems.