Writing to De-Stress In Times of Crisis
Lately, I’ve been feeling nothing short of overwhelmed. There’s a lot to do all the time and not that much time to do it. I’m trying to prioritize rest, but just the stress has been getting to me with the simultaneous desire to listen to my own needs and pressure to be more productive and accomplished. That’s made it hard to write — especially around this time of year in the middle of a pandemic. For teachers like myself, the New Teacher Center calls the time between mid-October to Thanksgiving the disillusionment phase for teachers.
Inevitably, my writing is slowing down from what I was producing over the summer. Regardless, it would have been impossible to keep the same pace with obligations mounting up. Teaching itself is sometimes too emotionally and psychologically draining, so it’s valid that working a more physically intensive job at Amazon took less out of me emotionally than teaching does. It’s probably time to admit I’ve bitten off more than I can chew in a lot of ways — but I’m too determined and too committed to quit anything right now.
According to James W. Pennebaker, the chair of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, writing about emotions can de-stress. Pennebaker calls the most de-stressing form of writing expressive writing — writing about thoughts and feelings from traumatic or stressful life experiences. It’s important to note that Pennebaker stresses against using expressive writing for people who are struggling with severe mental health challenges, like major depression or PTSD, but extols its benefits for mental health otherwise.
I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed at dealing with graduate school, work as a teacher, and my side hustles of writing and editing. I’ve felt so stressed I could barely think besides later times of night. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a natural human response is to want that stress to be resolved. Sleep helps, maintaining a good diet helps, and exercise helps, but that’s all they do — help. No life hack is going to fix everything.
Pennebaker’s study asked college students to write about personally traumatic topics for 15 minutes for four days straight. Some students continued. Others did not. Students who wrote about their traumatic events for six months after the experiment visited the campus counseling center less frequently, used a pain reliever less frequently, and generally were just less stressed than people who wrote about things that didn’t matter.
The consensus is that writing helps. It helps me, as it does many others. I’ve used writing to help me through lots of tough times in my life, like my first year of teaching and my senior year of college, where I struggled through a plethora of personal issues. But I’ve found more personal but expressive writing to be more difficult to access in times like now.
Pennebaker’s group actually finds a very interesting relationship between expressive writing and health. Expressive writing initially stresses people out and upsets them, but eventually, it helps them relax. According to Harvard Health Publishing, studies have found that expressive writing reduces stigma-related stress for gay men and benefitted the stressed caregivers of older adults. A study from the University of Chicago also found that anxious caregivers who wrote about their thoughts and feelings before exams earned better grades than people who did not.
All these studies typically had people write about traumatic or stressful experiences, and participants had to write nonstop to voice their inner thoughts without inhibiting their thoughts. As a result, their thoughts would remain confidential, which provided a lot of comfort to participants. Sometimes, the writing would revive memories of stressful events. Pennebaker’s group hoped helping people move towards expressive writing would help them overcome emotional inhibition, and the intention was to help people unlock suppressed traumatic memories.
However, the benefits are a bit more complex than just confronting trauma (which is very important). Confronting trauma is the first step to a very long journey. Thinking about an experience and expressing those emotions helps people organize thoughts and give meaning to their trauma. Writing also helps people regulate their emotions and foster their intellectual process, allowing people to make a story about their traumatic event that prevents brooding and rumination. Essentially, writing streamlines the processing of trauma.
And once people talk about their trauma in their writing, they are more likely to reach out to other people about their trauma, which is another benefit. In the words of Harvard Health Publishing:
“Writing leads indirectly to reaching out for social support that can aid healing.”
An important point of caution is not visiting traumatic events too soon after they occur since we’re still processing it. Pennebaker advises clinicians with the timetable of one or two months after a traumatic event before trying expressive writing, which makes sense considering everyone has a different way of dealing with trauma.
I have used expressive writings to confront my traumas in the past, and it hasn’t occurred to me to look into them again during this time where I’m so stressed I can barely think. The American Psychological Association defines post-traumatic growth as the experience of more resilience and personal development following a traumatic event. But post-traumatic growth goes even a notch above resilience — it’s a sense of growth that “sticks.”
Of course, it’s not for everyone, and resilience and personal growth is not a surefire solution for everyone and very oversimplifying. But writing to de-stress in times of crisis means using narrative writing can help when you’re so stressed you can barely think. And as an educator, as a graduate student, as someone who is simply balancing a million things, I know a lot of my struggle is self-imposed. But I also know that to survive and persist, I need to listen to my own needs and be in tune with myself.
Writing isn’t something I want to do for my mental health. It’s something I need to do, and expressive, narrative writing is a sure better alternative than what I was doing before.