Writing for Health

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It can be hard to face a blank page. It can also be hard to face past traumas. So why would I ask you to do both? For one very good reason: Writing can lead to health.

Life is full of bumps and bruises—both large and small. Some individuals use eating disorder symptoms to dull the ache. That might work for the moment, but it doesn’t manage the pain in the long run. Eventually this tactic only serves to intensify the physical and emotional toll of your pain. Writing can ease this suffering.

Research has proven the emotional and physical benefits of writing. Early studies were conducted with students who frequented the health center at a particular college. They were split into two groups, with each student writing for about fifteen minutes four days a week. One group was told to write about a superficial, external topic, such as what they did the previous day. The other group’s assignment was to write about a difficult and challenging time in their lives. Any idea what happened?

The group of students writing about emotional issues had a decrease in health center visits. Further study determined that this group also had improved immune system functioning. They were becoming physically healthier! Why did this happen?

Pushing away difficult memories takes a lot of energy. In fact, trying to numb and negate difficult memories not only doesn’t make them go away, it can give themmore power. The more we try to avoid these thoughts and the feelings that go with them, the more energy we divert to this task—energy that could be otherwise channeled into maintaining our bodies’ health.

Another writing study focused on a large group of men who had recently lost their jobs. One group was told to write about the efforts they were making to find new work. Another group was directed to write about their feelings regarding being laid off. A third group didn’t write at all. Months later, 53% of the men who wrote about their emotions were employed as compared to only 18% of the other two groups, even though they had all been to the same number of job interviews. Why the difference?

If you felt powerless after a past
trauma, look at the power you have
now because you lived to tell the tale.
Don’t let a single event difine the rest
of your life.

It is believed that the group of men participating in emotional writing dealt with and worked through their anger, disappointment, shame, and other strong feelings. When they went on interviews, these men appeared to be more promising candidates. They didn’t bring negative feelings to the table. Writing allowed them—as it can allow anyone—to deal with strong emotions in a safe and protected way.

Writing Your Story

If improved health can come from writing, then maybe we all need to recount the stories that have had a negative impact on our lives. Through writing, we can look for alternative or new interpretations of what occurred. Maybe we didn’t have all the information the first time around. Maybe we required some distance to see things more clearly. Maybe we needed time to heal.

A story should be crafted not only around the actual event—including details to make it vivid—but also your reactions to it. Allow it to have a conclusion. You went through a challenging time, but it is over and you survived. Once you write it down, you can let it go. You have recorded it. You have dealt with it. You can set it free.

Use writing to re-author your current life and the future. If you felt powerless after a past trauma, look at the power you have now because you lived to tell the tale. Don’t let a single event define the rest of your life. You are not powerless, you are powerfull. You are here and ready to move ahead in your life. You have the strength to face what happened as you write your story. You have the ability to understand your feelings and release them. Do not give your power to your eating disorder or to your past traumas. It is your power. As you write, you can reclaim it and make it yours.

Staring at a blank page can be scary. Yet it is scarier to keep all your ordeals and emotions trapped inside. By putting your stories down on paper, you can work to understand them. You own them—it’s not the other way around. Then, instead of using energy to push away these experiences, you can draw upon it to help fuel your emotional and physical health.

Do you need inspiration to get started? Check out “Your Write to Health” under the Blog tab on www.gurze.com Write on!

By Martha Peaslee Levine, M.D
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Winter 2009 Volume 7, Number 1
©2009 Gürze Books

About the Author

Martha Peaslee Levine, M.D., is the Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, and Director of the Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs Eating Disorder Clinic at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

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