How Writing Improves Your Brain and Helps You Heal
You probably know from your own experience that putting feelings into words — talking with a counselor or friend or writing them down — helps you feel better.  Until now, we’ve not really known why. New evidence is shedding light on the many ways writing helps your brain and body.

Benefits of Writing For Your Brain and Body

Expressive writing has been linked with psychological benefits, such as improved mood, greater well-being, lower stress levels and fewer depressive symptoms. Lower blood pressure, improved lung and liver functioning and decreased time spent in the hospital are among the physical benefits. Specifically:

  • A brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists revealed that expressing feelings,  in verbal or written words, reduces activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, and engages the thinking brain. This brain pattern can make sadness, anger, and pain less intense.
  • Research suggests expressive writing may also offer physical and psychological benefits to people by boosting immune function. In tests, writing significantly improved health outcomes in four areas: reported physical health, psychological well-being, physiological functioning, and general functioning.
  • Another study found that simply writing about feelings before a stressful task helped chronic worriers’ brains perform more efficiently. Their brains were less active and performed a task using fewer resources.
  • Writing about feelings after a traumatic event can actually make physical wounds heal faster, according to one experiment. Participants assigned to write in the journals had faster healing times than those instructed to avoid writing about their feelings.
  • In Your Brain on Ink, the authors explain how you can use writing to engage your thinking brain and calming parasympathetic nervous system to harness self-directed neuroplasticity to beneficially rewire your brain.
  •  The act of using a pen or pencil to put thoughts on paper can help you retain the information you are writing, according to research. In short, writing by hand forces the brain to process information promoting comprehension and retention.

The Healing Power of Writing

Besides the many measurable benefits of writing for our brains and bodies, we know that it just plain feels good.

With way too much chaos and craziness in the world, writing is a way to try to make sense of things that make no sense. It’s a way to feel like we have a little bit of control in a world where we often have none.

When we don’t know what else to do, putting words on paper feels tangible, real – at least we’re doing something. When we don’t feel like talking to anyone, writing can be our voice. Writing helps us to explore and express emotions. It’s a way for us to purge pain and fear and to record accomplishments and chart progress.

My Story

After taking care of my brother as he wasted away and died of AIDs, the end of my 18-year marriage, and years of wrong turns and things not working out, I tried to kill myself in June of 2007, by swallowing a bunch of pills.

After a week in a coma, I woke up with a serious brain injury. (Read full story here.)  With determination, hard work, and discipline, accompanied by lots of reading, self-examination, counseling, doing things differently, and through the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly healed emotionally, mentally, and physically.

As part of my healing journey, I started writing about my experiences and the touchy subjects of depression, suicide, and mental illness. Upon putting my dirty laundry out there, I found that people were most often compassionate and understanding. As I shared and healed, I began to feel like I was setting down weights that I’d been lugging around for a long time.  In writing my memoir, it was as if I left the pain behind in the written words and didn’t have to shoulder it anymore.

 Corrie’s  Story

For years, writing simply gave structure to my day. It was a reason to get up in the morning, follow a routine, and contribute what I could to the world that I no longer had any interaction with. I was clinically agoraphobic and majorly depressed. My anxieties and phobias were so debilitating that I was legally disabled – but excruciatingly bored. I needed an outlet, and I’d had all these ideas for novels just taking up space in my imagination.

I decided to try my hand at writing a book. I’d had zero instruction on how to do this, and at the time, I wasn’t interested in learning the process of “how to write a book.”  I just wanted to write. I sat down while still in my pajamas and started typing. And it was FUN! It felt good. Writing relieved a certain pressure that had been building up within me. I kept coming up with ideas, and I wrote them down as fast as I could. I channeled all of my emotion and anxiety into my writing and churned out five novels in twelve months.

Unfortunately, realizing that I had the drive and ability to write fiction wasn’t enough to keep me from trying to take my life, which resulted in a coma and brain injury.  After my suicide attempt, it took a while for my brain to be able to focus enough to just spend twenty minutes reading or writing. I knew that I would have to work every day to build my mental endurance and creative abilities to their former strength. I also knew that writing was an important part of my life that was worth the effort. It was like a friend that I missed having around.

I’ve learned healthier ways to deal with my thoughts and emotions, and as I’ve healed, my relationship with writing has evolved and changed. It’s become a kind of outward meditation for me. In fact, I have just published a new book. While the end result is still a killer urban fantasy, sci-fi novel, writing is now a way for me to communicate with the world I hid from for so long. Being genuine with my writing is a now a meaningful way to connect with people — instead of a way to avoid them. I find that so empowering and pretty miraculous.”

Corrie Brundage is a novelist, aspiring polerina, cat addict, and meditator. She resides in NYC and is currently working on a screenplay.  You can check out her latest book here and connect with her on Facebook.

 

Ellen’s Story

In the last 4.5 years, I’ve written around 1.5 million words of morning pages, with 1000 words of free writing most days. It’s an opportunity to bring anything trying to get my attention into the light. I learned early I had a tendency towards the analytical even in my writing, so from then on, I often included the question “How do I feel today?”, which changed the tone and depth in a way that surprised me. This simple exercise helped me process numerous events, including leaving the UK for a life in Thailand; relationship challenges; day-to-day irritants and most of all, health challenges.
 
I have consistent chronic pain, and Crohn’s Disease, and while generally I keep my head down and get on with things, some days are harder than others.
 
The writing has helped me to untangle all sorts of emotional distress. Once I understand the nuances of what I feel, I can think about where that comes from, and whether it’s a transient emotion that I can release, or if it’s something that needs more action, or a conversation I need to have with someone else – a conversation that usually goes a lot better because of the processing I have done in my writing. And when I re-read my pages – just once, quarterly – if something has come up repeatedly, it gives me a pointer that there is something I need to address.”

Ellen Bard is a work psychologist, writer, and digital nomad who calls Chiang Mai, Thailand home. You can download Ellen’s free cheatsheet on 5 Unusual Ways to Take Care of Yourself and connect with her on Facebook. She has also authored several romance novels – find out more here.

Three Ways to Start Therapeutic Writing

It doesn’t matter how you write or what you write. There is no wrong way. Whatever feels right to you is what’s right for you. It’s just important that you write. Whatever method you choose can help you heal. Here are some suggestions to get started:

Write Every Day

Author Julia Cameron, who wrote “The Artist’s Way,” recommends something she calls “morning pages,” where you write longhand every morning. Ellen spoke of this above.  I think she meant this exercise to be mostly for writers, but anyone can benefit from doing it.

Journaling

Another writing technique is keeping a gratitude journal. For example, every night before you go to bed or first thing in the morning, you write down three to five things for which you are grateful. Science has shown that gratitude has physical and mental benefits. For more information on journal writing go here.

“Brain Drain” Stream of Consciousness Writing

As explained in the article “Brain Drain” Exercise: How Stream-of-Consciousness Writing Can Help Over-Thinking”:

The ‘brain drain’ exercise is incredibly simple to do. Just grab 2 pieces of paper and a pen, then write down whatever comes to your mind until both pages are completely filled.

The goal of the ‘brain drain’ is to write down your thoughts in real-time as they are unfolding. Don’t wait. Don’t edit. Don’t second guess. Just write down whatever pops into your mind, even if it’s something as simple as ‘I don’t know what to write about right now.’

Then keep writing and keep writing, until the 2 pages are completely filled.”

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11 Comments

  1. I enjoy writing. It has helped me with tuning into greater insights. If not for writing, I wouldn’t have had many interesting revelations about myself and the world. I do it in the form of intuitive writing to get answers sometimes.

    And yes, I agree. Don’t edit. Don’t second-guess. Just let the words flow!

    • I’m with you, Evelyn, – just let the words flow. When I am trying to write a blog, if I am feeling blocked, I give myself permission to write anything. That gets me started. Works every time. Then, go back and edit! 🙂

  2. Debbie, I have found writing to be so helpful when I’m feeling challenged in any way. I have found the mind chatter goes to the paper which allows me to feel calmer and come up with a few answers. I like your approaches. Reading about the “morning pages” was the start of my regular journaling which has been a great self-care tool.

  3. How interesting to read how people use the power of the written word Debbie. It’s a much denser energy than thought which is probably why it is so powerful…reaching us where we need it the most. Be it in encouragement, or inspiration or just plain information that we didn’t know we had.

    I’m not a ‘journaler’ in the traditional sense of the word…but actual writing…with pen or pencil on paper is my tool of choice when I do write. And not notes on my computer. Somehow the connection isn’t the same for me. I wonder if this is true for anyone else? Just curious. 🙂

    • Surprisingly, Elle, I’m not a journaler either. I do “journal” mentally daily, but not on paper. Science has shown benefits to physically writing longhand that you do not get when using a computer. Your brain activity is different. So, it would make sense that you would prefer it. I still have manual dexterity issues that make physically writing difficult. Otherwise, I think I would do it too.

  4. I completely agree with the power of writing. I keep a gratitude journal and write at least ten things I’m grateful for each day. My challenge to myself to make sure I find the good in anything is to (almost) never repeat myself. And whenever I have thoughts, ideas or problems swimming in my head, I start writing (like the morning pages). The answers are almost always inside me if I write long enough and allow enough stuff to come up and out on the page. My journal is like my own personal therapist, always there when I need it.

    • Wow, Paige. It certainly sounds like you’ve figured out how to harness the positive power of writing. Thar’s a great analogy that your journal is your therapist. I like it! 🙂

  5. Brilliant Debbie, love this and yes I journal each day and it is very powerful and helps shift blocked energy and bring one into alignment xxx

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