Today we now have proof that writing is therapeutic. James Pennebaker, PhD., a psychologist and researcher, has conducted studies that show improvement in immune system functioning and emotional well-being when research participants write about difficult or traumatic events in their lives. When you share your story, you no longer feel alone or isolated. You feel connected and understood.
As humans, we absolutely must process our feelings before we can recover or heal from any painful experience. Until we do this, we remain stuck. This is not only important for our emotional health, but our physical health as well.
Research now exists to prove that unresolved emotional pain can cause physical illness. I had such a severe auto-immune response after my divorce that I lost the ability to walk for one month. It was a terrifying experience and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that my emotional health is directly linked to my physical health. Hence the importance of processing our feelings before they become toxic. We "Gotta Get it Out," as I like to say because we now know that unresolved emotional trauma floods our bodies with hormones, which leave our immune systems weak and vulnerable to attack.
People tell us to just move on and expect us to get over it, but we can't until we fully process how we feel about it, share our story with others who can relate, and organize our thoughts in such a way that we feel we have made sense of the situation.
You may ask: “How do I make sense of a senseless situation?”
Well, this is certainly not easy, but I believe sorting out our feelings and organizing our thoughts in a way that helps us feel we have given the experience some kind of form and structure helps tremendously. We have a need to organize the trauma and chaos we experience in life. It makes us feel better to express ourselves in a way that allows us to feel as though we can finally put the whole crazy mess to rest in our heads. Until that happens, we will always obsess about it.
Research tells us the main reason for the stress of psychological trauma is that our memories of these horrible events are fragmented. Psychologically traumatic events are ones that have no good explanation. You have painful facts that make no sense, right? This is what we call Cognitive Dissonance.
Our natural tendency is to avoid thinking about painful memories or events. We suppress them and hope they will go away. But, they don't. If you don’t process them, deal with them and get them out, they will never go away. This is because the mind is most settled when there is coherence to our thoughts.
The only way to resolve conflicting thoughts is by remembering them, processing them and making sense of them. One way of doing this is by writing. Sharing our story with others is extremely healing and cathartic. It validates our experience and reassures us that we are not alone in our struggle.
Telling your story allows you to link together your emotional memories, which makes the traumatic events more coherent. It makes memories of these events less likely to be repeatedly called to mind so they can be laid to rest. We have to feel and express our feelings about it and organize our thoughts in some way that helps us feel as though we have made sense of it all. This stage is imperative before one can move on.
“I will write myself into well-being.“
As Louise DeSalvo points out in her powerful book, “Writing as a Way of Healing,“ many writers, like Virginia Woolf and Henry Miller describe their work as a form of analysis or therapy. Before treatment was available, many writers used their work in this way. Writing allows us to release pent-up feelings that otherwise may not have come to the surface by talking. I know this is certainly the case for me. I find writing to be incredibly healing.
I love the way DeSalvo describes the therapeutic process of writing:
“We receive a shock or a blow or experience trauma in our lives. In exploring it, examining it, and putting it into words, we stop seeing it as a random, unexplained event. We begin to understand the order behind appearances.
Expressing it in language robs the event of its power to hurt us; it also assuages our pain. And by expressing ourselves in language, by examining these shocks, we paradoxically experience delight – pleasure, even – which comes from the discoveries we make as we write, from the order we create from seeming randomness or chaos.
Ultimately, then, writing about difficulties enables us to discover the wholeness of things, the connectedness of human experience. We understand that our greatest shocks do not separate us from humankind. Instead, through expressing ourselves, we establish our connection with others and with the world.“