The healing power of words

Do you ever get weighed down with stress and worry, or do you suffer with a chronic illness? If so, keeping a daily journal can make a significant difference to your quality of life. Lyn Alderson reports.

Scientists in the US have been studying the power of  expressive writing for more than 20 years and the findings are encouraging. For many people, writing privately about emotional topics helps enormously; it is physically and psychologically beneficial.

For thousands of years, humans have poured out their hearts in writing, recording their deepest thoughts, hopes, dreams, and frustrations. But only in the last couple of decades has the amazing power of expressive writing (also known as journaling) been measured scientifically.

Psychologists now know that writing about personal issues can help people sleep better and recover from all types of trauma. These major crises include divorce, death of a spouse, physical or sexual abuse, accidents, natural disasters, and the violence of war. Immediately after such events, people are prone to become depressed or physically ill, and are more vulnerable to serious health problems. But if people talk (or write) about their traumas, they are much more likely to avoid a major health crisis.

Studies show that when people write about emotionally difficult events in their lives for as little as 20 minutes a day over a four-day period, their health improves. Expressive writing is like a relief valve, reducing emotional pressure. And this release has a positive impact on the body’s ability to withstand stress and fight infection and disease.

One of the pioneers of writing as a therapy is Dr James Pennebaker. During the 1990s he discovered that expressive writing can boost our immune system, and lift our mood if we are depressed. Other researchers discovered further advantages. They observed improvements in symptoms across a range of chronic health problems.

These diseases included asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, IBS, Aids, cancer and lupus. Pennebaker and his peers also found that people who wrote privately about their feelings performed better academically and had stronger social relationships.

“As the number of studies increased, it became clear that writing was far more powerful than anyone ever dreamed,” James Pennebaker commented.
I think there is much we can learn from this ground-breaking scientific research. We need to understand that we have been ‘hardwired’ by God to tell stories about our experiences. Children, teenagers, and adults of all ages enjoy a good narrative. People naturally want to create explanations for their life experiences.

This is true for all humans, but as Christians we have the privilege of sharing our deepest hopes and fears with a loving, heavenly Father. As we put pen to paper, we can pour out our hearts and seek healing from life’s inevitable traumas. If we look at the Psalms, they provide some great examples of expressive writing.

Without doubt David expressed himself honestly before God. Most of these wonderful poems begin with David unburdening himself. He expresses his distress quite graphically and in some psalms he laments how his enemies are seeking to kill him. He asks God to defend him and destroy his foes, and after he has released his angry, bitter and fearful emotions, he reaffirms his faith in a loving God who will care for him. He usually finishes on a note of praise or thanksgiving.

This is a great pattern for journaling. We can let the bad stuff come out, without censoring ourselves. There is no need to worry about being honest in this way. God already knows what’s in our hearts, and it’s good to release it in our ‘pages’. This is catharsis and much healthier than holding on to destructive emotions.

Paradoxically, when we have expressed our negative feelings, we are usually able to renounce them and repent of them. We can humbly acknowledge our need of God’s grace and gratefully receive more of his Holy Spirit. Our words turn into prayers, and we often receive insights as the Lord responds to our cries from the heart. When we receive an answer from God, we can write that in our journal too. I have a separate book for recording these precious, Spirit-inspired thoughts, and you may want to do the same.

Expressive writing is not always about our problems though. Sometimes we just want to celebrate the good things in our lives, and thank God for them. Journal pages are a kaleidoscope of mixed emotions. Always look for the positives in your life and you will surely find them.    

+ Lyn Alderson is the author of The Write Therapy: How Keeping a Journal Can Make You Happier, Healthier and More Productive (available in the Amazon Kindle Store)

10 tips for therapeutic journaling

  • Keep your journal completely private. You will be completely honest if you write for yourself alone. Whether you use a pen and paper notebook, or a laptop or tablet, keep your pages secure.
  • You don’t have to journal every day, but three or four times a week is a sensible goal. Allow at least 20 minutes, up to an hour if you want.
  • Think about the best time of day to do your writing. I’m keen on writing in the morning, but it all depends on your lifestyle. Whatever works for you is fine.
  • Start each session with a prayer or some worship music. Ask God to be with you in your journaling.
  • If you feel angry or upset about an issue, write everything down and then consciously ‘let go’ of the emotions. It’s useful to shred or burn the pages afterwards as a symbolic gesture of renouncing the negatives. You can pray while you are doing this or meditate on Scripture. It also helps to write a list afterwards of ‘Ten Things I Love About My Life’ to remind yourself of God’s many blessings.
  • Don’t limit yourself. If you’re an arty person, you can draw in your journal as well as write.
  • Deal with distractions, and don’t let them spoil your journaling therapy. Keep a rough notepad next to your journal. If you think of an urgent task which you must do (such as posting a birthday card), jot it down in your rough book and do it later.
  • Want to de-stress? Try ‘stream of consciousness’ writing. Write anything that pops into your head, as quickly as you can. Some of this writing will be trivial stuff, but you often find it will lead to something deeper after a few minutes of scribbling away. This is a good way to access your sub-conscious and identify what’s on your mind. You will be amazed at how this exercise can clear your head, leaving you calmer and more focused. You can repeat it every day for many weeks, if you find it beneficial.
  • Turn off the inner critic. Don’t listen to that little voice that says: “You can’t write properly, you can’t spell, this is all rubbish.” It really doesn’t matter if your handwriting is neat, or an untidy scribble. In fact, it’s normal for your writing to get untidy when you’re writing about emotional stuff. Let the words just flow out of your pen.
  • Still stuck for something to write about? Choose a significant moment in your life, and describe it in great detail. Recall the sights you saw and the sounds you heard, the odour you smelled, the objects and people you touched, what you tasted in your mouth. It’s quite uplifting when you’re feeling down to capture some of the special moments in your life in these ‘snapshots’.