We all have issues, whether from long standing hurt, memories of trauma, unresolved anger or current frustration, from which we find hard to move on. They circulate endlessly in our minds, invade our dreams and hijack headspace. Dwelling on unhappy or unpleasant episodes stops us enjoying the good things in life and having the self-confidence to achieve what we want.
Writing is an immensely effective way of processing these episodes and our reactions to them, freeing us from associated negative emotions and allowing the events themselves to pass quietly into history. Putting feelings into words produces therapeutic effects in the brain.
Professor James W. Pennebaker has probably done more research than any other psychologist on the “writing paradigm”. He explains how the actions of putting life events and our reactions to them into written form causes us to pay attention to the words we use to describe them and the structure of our “story”; which in turn forces our brain to integrate the emotions with our understanding and interpretation of them.
Though the process of expressing feelings may be painful at times, Pennebaker’s expressive writing experiments have demonstrated major improvements in not only the mood and distress levels of his subjects, but on their immune systems, stress levels, self-esteem and productivity.
Here are 5 easy to follow writing methods that Pennebaker suggests will help process negative emotions:
1. Choose an issue or event that you want to deal with and write first about your own subjective experience of what happened, then how you felt about it. Write about the deepest thoughts and feelings you have about it, including perhaps how they relate to other people in your life, your situation, the person you are now.
Recognise that doing so may bring up painful memories and feelings but that these are part of the process.
When writing from your own perspective you will probably use the first person singular pronoun, “I”, frequently as you describe what caused your emotions, and the feelings themselves. This writing style is associated with stress symptoms, depression and negative feelings; it is a necessary first step.
Only write for fifteen to twenty minutes at most and don’t write again that day.
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Ernest Hemingway.
2. The following day, or a few days later, move on to another blank page. Write again about the same matter but this time from a more objective point of view. Take a journalistic approach and describe the event(s) as if you were watching yourself and any others involved from the outside. Use your own name and third person pronouns (she/he/they) about yourself as well as others. Then attempt to describe the feelings of everyone involved, as well your own, and the effect the incident had on them.
Research shows that the more that people make reference to others in their writing, the healthier they are mentally, and moving from first to third person pronouns is linked to adaptive coping and improved physical health.
Again, only write for fifteen to twenty minutes at most and don’t write again that day.
“There is a tremendous wisdom that is accumulated after loss. Healing takes place when we can turn our pain into something meaningful.” Dan Baker, psychologist
3. The third time you sit down to write about your chosen issue, look for reasons as to why the initial event happened; why individuals – including you – acted as they did, felt the way they did, made the decisions they did. This will encourage you to retell the story from yet another perspective, thereby gaining still more awareness and understanding.
We know that using causal (“because”, “reason”, “infer”) and insight (“understand”, “realise”) words, are strongly related to emotional recovery and better physical health.
4. Finally, one or more days later, sit down and write again. This time write about the ways you have coped with the bad experience. Describe how you yourself have grown as a result of the event. Write about any positive outcomes from what has happened to you: perhaps you have become more insightful and understanding, maybe you have made new relationships or some existing ones have been strengthened through the experience. Consider the ways you have become stronger, better equipped to deal with life, possessed of more wisdom and greater ability.
5. Over the next few weeks, check in with yourself to see if you feel more at peace about the situation. If it works for you, repeat the process with any other outstanding emotional issues or new irritations that crop up. Get into the habit of processing and clearing painful or difficult experiences on a regular basis, so your past is dealt with, your present is clear and your future open to every possibility.
More on writing for wellbeing in The Real Secret (available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle), and on https://www.therealsecret.net