Have you ever felt so connected to a story you read or heard that it changed the way you think about your life? Have you experienced the cathartic process of journaling, such that the act of writing about a trauma or challenge allowed you to release and transform it? I remember when I moved to Austin from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and then experienced the traumatic breakup of a long-term relationship; around that same time, I had the good fortune to come across Pema Chodrön’s book When Things Fall Apart. Reading Pema’s story about how her own marriage ended under similar circumstances, as well as her advice for sitting with difficult emotions, helped me through the panic attacks and allowed me to start rebuilding my life. I began practicing meditation and journaling about the anger, the betrayal, the hurt, and the sadness, until slowly my world opened up again, allowing me to live in a fuller and richer way than ever before.
In recent years, scientific research has demonstrated the profound effects of writing and storytelling, both on the people who share their stories and those who receive those stories. Storytelling, perhaps the oldest distinctly human pastime, allows us to make meaning of the events of our lives, to teach and transmit information in a compelling way, and to share our experiences with others. Writing, a newer and more sophisticated human invention, helps us to solidify our learning into memories and makes it possible to address a much wider audience over a broader span of time than oral communication alone.
Recent studies have shown that storytelling (rather than simply relaying facts or bullet points) exerts a powerful influence on our emotions and thoughts, and helps us relate to others. When we hear a story, our brains activate as though we’re actually experiencing the events of the story firsthand. Writing your story and reading others’ stories can also have a calming effect on breathing, blood pressure, and anxiety. For example, a study published in 2011 showed that medical patients who listened to others’ stories of similar health problems received benefits in the form of lowered blood pressure. And the benefits may go well beyond the physiological: a National Public Radio report also from 2011described how end-of-life patients encouraged to write down their life stories often find new meaning in their lives and create a legacy that they can pass on to their families.
Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas, has spent his academic career researching the effects of writing on health. In one study, he asked trauma survivors to write about the traumatic events they experienced. Those that did were able to make sense of their experiences in new ways, leading to healing and long-lasting health benefits, even years after writing about their traumas. Dr. Pennebaker’s website offers helpful instructions for writing about traumatic events to improve your physical and emotional health.
Syncreate embraces transformation through the creative process; this is one of our major areas of interest. Have you experienced the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of writing and storytelling? We’d love to hear your stories!
Visual News – How Does the Act of Writing Affect Your Brain?http://www.visualnews.com/2013/05/28/how-does-the-act-of-writing-affect-your-brain/
The New York Times – When Patients Share Their Stories, Health May Improvehttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/10/health/views/10chen.html?_r=0
National Public Radio – Dignity Therapy: For the Dying, A Chance to Rewrite Lifehttp://www.npr.org/2011/09/12/140336146/for-the-dying-a-chance-to-rewrite-life
Weebly.com General Psychology – How Can Writing Improve Your Health?http://general-psychology.weebly.com/how-can-writing-improve-your-health.html
Dr. James Pennebaker – Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/faculty/pennebaker/Home2000/WritingandHealth.html