One of the most important lessons I have learned from swaddling myself in a serape of self-care in recent years is this: I am not my thoughts. I am merely a riverside spectator observing them as they float past, like leaves bobbing along on a stream. This realisation has been a grade A game changer, a holistic home run.
My words though, are my own, and putting pen to paper has allowed me to tap into a part of myself that could otherwise have remained unknown.
In their most basic form, words are a set of letters. Simple, alphabet symbols. However, when words are consciously chosen, they have the power to form a collection of letters. Like the old school postal variety except there is no need for a stamp or address. In short, these are the messages you receive from yourself. By exploring the power of writing and how it can serve to brighten and enlighten, I’ve discovered the following five benefits.
In the opening line of The Power of Writing it Down by Allison Fallon, she remarks that most people go their whole lives without ever truly expressing themselves.
That is a pretty sweeping statement, but rather than simply brushing it off, let’s see it as food for thought. Pause for a moment now to reflect on when and how you truly express yourself. (Nightclub bathrooms don’t count, ladies.)
When I think of writing and how I can attempt to describe the connection between my thought process and the pouring of words onto a page, one image starts spinning in my head, and it is that of Spiderman. (Stick with me here.)
There is something in the way he shoots webs from his wrists that reminds me of my Parker pen unleashing onto the page, releasing that which had been quietly residing in the unconscious part of my brain. This in turn shines a warm light on my innermost knowing, gently stirring it from slumber in my soul.
Our wrists serve as an essential exit point where our fingers hit the keyboard or our pen places words on a page. Akin to a cleansing breath in yoga (where you exhale anything from the body that you deem stale), expressive writing can serve to release that which no longer serves you on a small or large scale.
2. Enhanced wellbeing
The collection of terrors and treasures that we hold within our bodies, be it tension we are unknowingly storing in our jaw or shoulders or emotions we are holding in our hips, depend on us to set them free. It is whether we are willing to overcome resistance, display bravery and persistence, that will ultimately determine whether we fulfil this mission.
In her book Five Ways to Better Days, A Compendium of Writing and Other Practices, Irish author and clinical psychologist Patricia McAdoo highlights the bountiful benefits of writing. She describes how, in the early 1990s, one of the most prolific researchers in the field of expressive writing, James Pennebaker, began a psychological experiment which continues to be researched by him and many others to this day.
The experimenters asked people to write for 20 minutes on three or four consecutive days about the worst thing that had happened to them. Pennebaker found that this led to positive effects on a whole range of health indicators. The studies of Pennebaker over the past 30 years have consistently shown that participants who wrote about traumatic, stressful or emotional events had stronger immune systems, suffered from fewer colds and flus and visited the doctor less. Pretty impactful wellness wins for picking up a paper and pen.
3. Narrate your own story
Writing sheds a light on that which resides inside. It is a tapping into and a turning inwards. At a writing workshop I hosted recently, I asked participants how many of them would consider themselves to be writers. No hands went up in a room of about 30 people.
I then asked them how many times they write on a daily basis and smiles began to form. Between social media and other apps, we spend much of our days typing away, yet nobody in that room considered themselves a “writer”. Maybe this is because of a negative experience from school days or they were just too modest, either way, writing provides the opportunity so you can have the final say.
Allison Fallon remarks that “We have stories to tell, ideas to share, dreams of the future, visions and versions of ourselves that want permission to live and breathe in the physical world but we won’t let them.” She poses the question: What is the cost of holding back what is trying to be expressed through you?
Fallon says the research shows there are three elements your writing needs to cover in order to have the power of change: facts, thoughts and feelings.
- The facts of whatever story you're writing.
- Your thoughts about those facts.
- Your feelings about those thoughts.
Just as an archeologist uses a pick to excavate that which has previously remained unseen, we can use a pen to extract the essence and truth of ourselves, ultimately setting us free.
We regularly check in with others and we check in online but how often do we touch base with our true selves?
4. Make sense of traumatic events
Writing helps us to make sense of things. Expressive writing, in particular, is heart writing. There is a real sense of truth that shines through. There is much research to support the notion that eye-witness accounts are often unreliable because of heightened emotions.
Similarly, when human beings experience trauma or negative emotions they are often left with a particular story that they hold onto about the event which is not always accurate or true.
Pennebaker describes how writing forces people to stop what they are doing and briefly reflect on their lives. It allows people to gain insight into events and make sense of them, enabling them to move on. The healing power of writing is real and it also serves to complement therapy.
5. Cultivate positive emotions
In the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) Science of Health and Happiness course, Dr Trudy Meehan explains how we cannot feel positive and negative emotions at once. However, our brains are primed to retain, pay attention to, and hold onto the negative. We have to actively work against this natural phenomenon that we do in our brains. We need a ratio of 3:1 when it comes to positive emotions to balance out the effects of negative emotions. (Fredrickson and Losada, 2005.)
Providing ourselves with positive emotions in the present changes who we can be in the future. One simple way to cultivate positive emotions is to engage in a daily gratitude practice. This can be as simple as writing down the letters of your name and choosing one thing you are thankful for that starts with each letter. Here's one my dad sent me: Joy, oxygen, serendipity, eyesight, positivity, humour.
It is amazing how such a short activity can not only uplift the person engaging in it but it provides a Polaroid of their personality, a snapshot of their soul. When my dad sent me this, I felt like a real life care bear, it truly made my heart glow.
Words matter. We hang them in our homes and we hang onto them when their speakers are gone. We carve them into stone and they instantly return to us in song. We use them to define ourselves and to share our thoughts with the world. How often do you take the time to sit with them and allow the truth of you to unfurl?
Change your way with words, place them on a page and, with patience and persistence, let them pave the way.