In a world where we tend to express ourselves with emojis or in 140 characters
or less, taking the time to write complete paragraphs seems positively
quaint. But sitting down and translating our thoughts and feelings into
words--whether in a letter to a loved one or a private journal--can actually
be good for our well-being, says
James DeCock, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at
Mission Heritage Medical Group.
"Expressive writing asks us to scratch the surface and record our
deeper feelings on a regular basis," says Dr. DeCock. "No one
ever has to see what we write if we want to keep it private and we don't
have to worry about punctuation or grammar. It's all about the content,
not the style of writing."
Ideally, expressive writing requires setting aside about 15 to 20 minutes
a few times a week to be alone with our thoughts. The events of the day
can be a jumping-off point, but they should lead into an exploration and
examination of feelings. "Relationships, past events, current struggles--they
all can be topics worthy of mining in expressive writing," Dr. DeCock
says. "Getting these emotions out of our minds and out in the open
can be cathartic, a way to find peace and ease stress."
Research indicates that writing may help with various health issues, such
as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and irritable bowl
syndrome; it may also speed the healing process. In addition to the physical
effects, expressive writing may have some psychological benefits. Studies
suggest the writing process can ease anxiety, depression and post-traumatic
stress, and it allows people with chronic or serious illnesses to better
cope with their medical condition.
"Writing about our problems can help us solve them--perhaps the problem
doesn't look as bad in black and white, or we can discover a solution
as we read back our writing," Dr. DeCock says. "We can step
back and get a better handle on our emotions, and by doing that we get
a new perspective that can help resolve the issue at hand. And it can
be a good way to get raging emotions out of our system without saying
something harmful to another person."
Relationships can also benefit from letter writing, whether it's renewing
a friendship, thanking a loved one, or trying to iron out a misunderstanding
or a long-held grievance. "With the latter, it's a time to carefully
consider the words being used, unlike journal entries that may be too
raw," Dr. DeCock says. "A journal entry about the relationship
can be used as a first draft in a way--everything gets put down on paper,
and then we can self-edit it to make sure the message gets across in a
Letter writing has also been found useful for people at the end of their
lives to express themselves on a number of topics, from saying final "I
love you's" to family members to repairing broken relationships
to detailing final wishes for treatment as in an advance directive. For
instance, the Stanford Letter Project (see link below) offers templates
to help people get started.
"Expressive writing may seem hard at first--it can dredge up some
overwhelming emotions we haven't wanted to deal with," Dr. DeCock.
"But the potential physical, emotional and relational benefits make
it worth the effort."
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