Years ago, when I was in college, I wrote poetry—not good poetry, but impassioned writing, pouring out my hopes, pain, frustrations, and aspirations, feelings too raw, too personal to talk about. And I always felt better.
Now I write letters to a friend who still writes letters, a novelist who lives in a cabin in redwood country. I treasure our letters. Over the years, we have shared our hopes and pains, frustrations and aspirations¸ developing a rare kinship of spirit. Our letters always makes me feel better.
Paradoxically, in our fast-paced world of 24/7 communication¸ email and texts, we are deluged with information but often isolated and starved for intimacy. Texas psychologist James Pennebaker has found the writing about our deepest feelings can be profoundly healing.
Pennebaker’s research reveals that failing to express our feelings and concerns compromises our health. The continuous stress of holding our feelings in, keeping our pains and problems undisclosed, undermines our immune systems and adversely affects the biochemistry of our brains. In research with thousands of people facing bereavement and other major life crises, he has found that writing about problems can release the stress of inhibition, relieve our emotional pain, and bring us greater insight, improving our mental and physical health (Pennebaker,1990; Pennebaker, Francis, & Mayne, 1997).
In his book, Opening Up (1990), Pennebaker says that it’s normal for our minds to dwell upon unresolved issues as we seek answers, solutions, meaning. Writing about our problems not only relieves the stress of inhibition, but helps us develop greater perspective, find meaning and gain greater self-understanding. He advises us to take time to write about our problems, expressing our deepest feelings, just letting the words flow. When we begin writing, we will feel negative emotions—sad, angry, anxious—but the vast majority of people in his studies felt relieved and more at peace afterwards. Of course, for serious issues or major depression, Pennebaker recommends seeing a therapist, but for many of the nagging problems in our lives, we can find healing and peace of mind if simply take time to look into our hearts and write.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1990). Opening up: The healing power of confiding in others. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Pennebaker, J. W., Francis, M. E., & Mayne, T. J. (1997). Linguistic predictors of adaptive bereavement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 863-871.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.
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