How to Use Writing to Manage Stress and Achieve Long-Term Benefits
How Chronic Stress Works
We have all experienced the effects of stress: sweaty palms, pounding heart, racing mind, adrenaline rush, tunnel vision, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, the list goes on. These symptoms are typically attributed to acute stress – a short-term adaptive response to some event that threatens our natural state or well-being.
Sometimes though, these symptoms persist beyond the life of a particularly traumatic or “stressful” event. Other times, these symptoms continue to occur because the stressful event persists over a long period of time, such as in a difficult job or home environment.
When this happens, we are experiencing chronic stress, which can cause long-term damage to our physical and mental health if not properly managed. Physically, chronic stress can lower the immune response, raise blood pressure, and increase cortisol levels and inflammation throughout the body leading to higher fat storage and tissue damage.
Mentally, chronic stress can increase the likelihood of developing anxiety and/or depression, eating disorders, and can also lead to social isolation due to difficulty in managing relationships with family and friends.
On top of these nasty physical and mental effects, failure to manage chronic stress can also impact our ability to reach our full potential in life and work. Being in a constant state of arousal, fear, or anxiety can lower our ability to empathize and be self-aware in our interactions with others, as well as to cope with uncertainty and failure. This, in turn, makes it very difficult to build and sustain healthy relationships as well as pursue interesting and stimulating careers.
There are a variety of ways (therapy, meditation, support from family and friends, etc.) to productively manage chronic stress and what works will vary for each person, so be sure to consult a professional to find the right regimen for you; however, the purpose of this article is to introduce one tool that you can add to your stress management toolkit: expressive writing.
How Expressive Writing Can Help
As researchers growing body of research over the past 20 years has shown that writing can be particularly beneficial for both physical and psychological health. Here is how you can also take advantage of this simple, yet powerful tool to reduce stress and improve long-term health:
- Set aside 20-30 minutes (15-20 minutes of writing with extra time to recoup if necessary) for either a few days in a row each week, or pick one designated day each week for your practice. Because this kind of writing might be emotionally intense, it is best to avoid writing right before bedtime. Consider making it a part of your morning routine or something you do at the end of your workday before dinner.
- Decide whether you would prefer to use a computer or pen and paper. The physical experience of writing on paper can be therapeutic, but you should choose what you’re most comfortable with. If you use the computer, try turning off spell or grammar checks as writing should be free-flow with no pressure for corrections.
- Make sure you have a private, quiet place to do your writing at the designated time. You may want to play soft music if that helps relax you. You may also want to use a timer if that’s helpful for you.
- When it comes time to write, use the following prompt. Feel free to write about the same issues or experiences over time or choose different topics. (Note: do not force yourself to write about a topic that you do not feel ready to write about and explore. Give yourself time to process before attempting to write about it.)
Identify a difficult experience that has affected or is affecting you and your life. Start by describing the event. In your writing, really let go and explore your deepest emotions and feelings. You might consider how this relates to your relationships with others, to your past, present or future, or to who you are or want to be.
- When you are finished writing, sit quietly for 5-10 minutes, breathing deeply and allowing yourself to process the emotions you’ve just expressed.