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Here’s how writing can help you cope with tough times

I don’t remember how I started writing. For as long as I can remember, it’s just been something I did. I don’t mean writing things like this, articles that are published on websites, I remember when that all started – I mean writing in journals, writing on scraps of paper, writing about things that were happening in my life.

I have a literally hundreds of untitled word documents floating around in the bowels of my computer that detail my feelings about whatever was happening in my life at the time. I have a dozen or so notebooks where the first 30 pages are filled with my loopy scrawl as I tried to find words for the things I was feeling. I wrote about my depression, my anxiety, my anorexia. I wrote about my parents’ complicated marriage and the strain it put on our family, I wrote about my broken heart. I wrote until I could make sense of what was happening, I wrote until I felt like I’d clambered around every emotion that was coursing through my body and put them on a page. I wrote until I could see a way out of whatever crappy situation I was in.

It turns out, I’m not alone in this. James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas, has been conducting loads of studies about the effects of writing about tough times that you’ve been through. In his studies, he divided people into two groups and had them write about something for 20 minutes, three days in a row. He asked one group to write about emotionally significant experiences, like mental health issues or things that were happening in their family life, and the others he asked to write about a random thing; their shoes, or the cars on the street.

In every study, he found that the people who wrote about their emotional experiences were happier, less depressed and less anxious. But it wasn’t just a short term improvement, after a few months they had lower blood pressure, a better immune system, even their relationships and memory were better.

So even if you don’t dream of being a writer, if you’re going through a rough time, maybe it’s worth a shot. Here’s how to get started:

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Get one of those notebooks you bought from Paperchase but have never written in down off the shelf, open up a new doc on your computer or if you’re really not a writing person, open the voice recorder app on your phone.

Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling mistakes, or even making sense. Follow your thoughts, wherever they take you, and don’t worry about writing for a future reader, just write whatever words come to you. Do this for a few days. It doesn’t matter what you do with the writing – you can delete it all, set it on fire and dance around it in a strange cleansing ritual, cram it in a bottle and send it out to sea (wait, are we still allowed to do that? I know it’s littering, but it’s poetic littering, so I think it’s fine).

It doesn’t matter what you do with it or even if anyone else ever reads it; you’ve begun the processing of distancing yourself from your experience. Which means that in time, rather than it becoming a monolithic, terrifyingly huge, overwhelming part of your life, you’ll be able to gain some perspective on it.

So what are you waiting for? Put 20 minutes on the clock right now and get scribbling. You might just surprise yourself.


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