The clock reads 4 am — too early to get up, but too late to go back to sleep. So you lie there, your mind racing from issue to issue: How will you pay for your son’s college? Should you move your mom into a care facility? And why can’t you stop snacking?
“There’s a pileup of stressors for women, especially women over 50,” says Anasuya Basil, author of Midlife Renewal for Women. Simultaneously caring for family, managing work, and facing physical changes, all while coping with past hurt, can create a pressure-cooker of anxiety, depression, and illness. “That’s why an avenue of self-expression is crucial to achieve balance.”
In recent years, research has shown that “expressive writing,” or the act of writing out your feelings without regard for grammar, punctuation, or structure, is an incredibly powerful and accessible self-healing tool. The reason, says method pioneer James Pennebaker, PhD, author of Opening Up by Writing It Down ($12.69, Amazon), is that consolidating thoughts into writing calms an overactive mind and helps us organize and extract meaning from otherwise stressful events.
Not only is this method free, easy, private, and emotionally healing, but it also has a measured impact on physical health. “Daily practices that reduce stress, like writing, can influence whether disease genes will be switched on or off, ultimately preventing illness,” adds Kenneth R. Pelletier, PhD, MD, author of Change Your Genes, Change Your Life ($10.90, Amazon). Here, four simple, week-long steps to writing your way to happy!
Establish a Daily ‘Free Flow’
To ease into the habit of writing, set aside 15 minutes at the same time each day to write in a journal. Next, pick a spot and write stream-of-consciousness, or whatever comes to mind, about your daily experiences, both positive and negative. Don’t worry about grammar-simply write the way you speak. “As you write, your brain will start making connections,” Pennebaker says. “You’ll begin to see, ‘Oh, that’s why I felt or behaved that way!’” How it works: “Our frustrations can fester over time,” says Michael Finkelstein, MD, author of Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness ($8.65, Amazon). “It’s like an abscess: Unless it is opened, there is no exit for the infection, and the pain grows. It’s similar with the mind. Expression is the key to healing.”
Mentally “scanning” your everyday experiences through writing helps you identify and release annoyances from your psyche, while spotlighting positive events, Finkelstein adds. “This also gives you a new perspective, making mental ‘monsters’ feel manageable.
Revisit an Upsetting Event
Each day this week, use your 15 minutes to write about an event that causes you pain. Maybe you’ve been ruminating over an argument with a loved one, heartbreak, or maybe there’s something that happened long ago that still affects you. As you describe this event, add more detail each day until you can’t think of anything more to say. Ask yourself: What happened? How did it make me feel? What does it cause me to believe about myself? Why does it still hurt?
How it works: “By writing about a trauma, you realize that it isn’t as bad as you thought, or that it is as bad, but that you can handle it,” says Pelletier, who adds that this act alleviates stress hormones that can switch on disease genes. If you’re anxious about this exercise, keep in mind that what you write doesn’t have to be shared. “If we feel safe to express ourselves, our deepest pain can be confronted,” encourages Finkelstein. “This leads to healing
Rewrite Your Story
Focusing on the event you wrote about in week 2, rewrite that story in fiction form. Let the characters you create play out the scene, expressing any emotions that you have bubbling up or actions you wish you would have taken. When it comes to anger, let it out. If you feel like getting revenge on someone, create a villain who takes no prisoners, allowing yourself to feel and express those emotions in a safe space. Be sure to write an ending — or multiple endings! — that you prefer had happened. Alternately, rewrite your story as the person you are today. How might your current self do things differently? How it works: “Working through your pain in story form has a powerful effect on the brain,” says Pennebaker. Although it doesn’t change what happened, as we rewrite our stories to have an ending we desire, research shows that we create new neural pathways that help us feel as if things had happened the way we wished, which dramatically lessens any pain connected to the incident.
Narrate Your Ideal Future
Use each session this week to describe a vivid mental picture of your future self. What do you hope your life will be like in five years? Do you have a new house? Working your dream job? Retiring and traveling? How do you feel about your life and about yourself? Describe every emotion that comes up, allowing the writing to move in the direction your psyche needs most.
How it works: “By imagining your future, you activate a specific region of the brain,” Finkelstein says. “When you put that thought into writing, you also activate other regions responsible for moving your hands and processing language. The more regions you light up, the more ingrained that thought becomes, and the more likely you’ll act on what you’ve envisioned.” The proof: 76 percent of business owners who used this type of future visualization while setting goals achieve them!
At the end of your four weeks, your routine has become a habit, so you can write about anything you want — your day, another painful or happy event, more fictional characters — as long as you keep it going, says Pelletier. “By sustaining the practice, you get the maximum stress-reducing benefits.”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.
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