The Stress-Writing-Wellness Connection

It is well documented that on-going, chronic stress can cause serious health problems. Cardiovascular disease, obesity and eating disorders, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems like GERD and colitis are just a few of the diseases worsened by stress, let alone the emotional impact it may have. Documented research also reveals that writing can improve stress-related health issues and even reverse the negative impact of stress on your body. It may be hard to believe that the simple act of putting pen to paper can make such a difference, but it’s true. Let’s look at what the research shows us about the stress-wellness-writing connection.

Strong emotions accompany stress

When life is out of balance, it creates stress. Just sitting in traffic watching the minutes tick by can cause a stress response, flooding the body with adrenaline and cortisol, two of the major stress hormones. Your heart may race, your breath quickens and your muscles tense. You may feel anger, frustration, anxiety. 

Consider other scenarios. You feel stuck with your life and need a change, but what change?? Or, you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer or diabetes or any other number of life-threatening diseases. Or perhaps you’ve had a major life change — a loved one just died, or you’ve recently changed jobs, retired, moved and are at a loss for what to do with yourself. Whatever the situation, your stress is off the chart! You may feel like your emotions are running high and the wind has been knocked out of you. Then again, you may not feel anything, yet the unconscious undercurrent of stress is harming your health!

Expressive writing to the rescue!

Research suggests expressive writing helps people manage their emotions and learn from negative experiences. Psychologists James Pennebaker, PhD, of the University of Texas, Austin, and Joshua Smyth, PhD, of Syracuse University, have proven writing about a stressful event and linking it to your emotions will boost immune functioning. Patients who write expressively about their cancer, asthma, arthritis or heart condition, for example, generally feel better and have a stronger immune response than those who don’t write. Pennebaker and Smyth attribute the effectiveness of writing to how patients interpret their experience and link it to their emotions. They add that the true healing power of writing comes from understanding and learning from your situation and emotions. 

Affirmative writing boosts self-esteem

Another type of writing that can benefit your health and wellness is Affirmative writing. It works to reframe negative beliefs into positive statements that make you more receptive to change. For example, the positive statement “I listen to my body and pay attention to what it is telling me” is much more helpful than the negative belief “Ever since my heart attack, I’m afraid my body will betray me.” Research by Claude Steele, social psychologist and founder of self-affirmation theory, shows that our predominant thoughts influence our behavior and attitude, and control our actions and reactions. If we want to change our life for the better, we need to change or replace the negative, self-defeating thoughts that normally occupy our minds and envision a new future. This can be realized by creating a self-affirmation that focuses on our values, leading to a more receptive state of thinking and being. 

Action-Scripting gives us back our lives

Action-scripting is where the rubber meets the road! To realize the future state of wellness you’ve identified in your affirmation, you need to take action by setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Relevant and Timely (SMART). Dr. Edwin Locke was the first to research the link between goal-setting and motivation. He proved specific and challenging goals lead to better job performance than vague or easy goals. Fast forward to today’s neuroscientific research that shows when you write down your goals, several things happen. Encoding occurs which is a biological process by which the things we perceive travel to our brain’s hippocampus where they’re analyzed. Our brain then decides what gets stored in our long-term memory and, in turn, what gets discarded. Also, things take place in the corpus callosum area of the brain, through which the imaginative right side and literal left side connect ‘electrically’ and then throughout our bodies via our spinal columns. By writing, the power of the left and right hemisphere connection results in a transformative message being sent to every cell in our body, saying ‘I want this, and I mean it.’ By writing things down, what we need and want is optimized in our bodies to be acted on so we can make it happen. By writing your goals, you sharpen your vision and reinforce any action plan you create. Multiple studies in goal-setting prove specific goals that are written are motivating and energizing. They give you a sense of purpose and support behavior change.    

Reflective writing confirms readiness

Before you take steps to change a behavior or build a new wellness habit, it’s important to step back for a moment and reflect. Remember why you’re feeling stressed, how you’d prefer to live your life, and what you’re planning to do about it. Reflective writing supports learning from experience. When you write reflectively, you have the opportunity to examine and question, express doubts and test your level of commitment. Research indicates that reflective writing contributes to cognitive development, enables creative and unique connections to be made between disparate sets of information, and contributes to new perspectives. Reflective writing is an important last step in a wellness journey as this is your honest assessment of your willingness to go forward. 

The Write to Be Well ™ method     

The Write to Be Well ™ method integrates these four powerful writing forms into one dynamic system to help you Get Well, Be Well, and Stay Well! The emerging agreement among researchers is that the key to writing’s effectiveness is the way people use it to interpret their experiences, understand their emotions, evaluate their goals and create an action plan to move them toward their desired state of wellness. The Get Well Project has created this easy, four-step method to empower you to reduce your stress and enhance your wellness with merely the stroke of a pen! Whether your situation is as big as moving a mountain or as small as moving a small stone, GO FOR IT!

More Joy and Less Stress

For many of us stress reaches a crescendo as we approach this time of year. For myself, I celebrate Christmas. For me, this brings pressure to bake, decorate, shop, wrap, attend events and host parties. For others, it may bring loneliness or anxiety.  It’s difficult to manage expectations when we’re stressed and feeling like we are running helter-skelter in all directions. We can miss the true essence of whatever holiday you celebrate and the promise of hope a new year may bring.

So please STOP, try this, take a long, deep cleansing breath and try writing – for just 5 minutes. That’s all it takes to shift your focus and align the meaning of your holiday with what’s most important for you and those around you. Here’s how…

  1. From this partial list of values, choose 3 that are most important to you, or come up with 3 of your own: family, faith, goodwill, gratitude, harmony, inner peace, kindness, peace, tradition, tranquility.
  2. Choose 1 value to work with.
  3. Answer this question: “If this season were in alignment with my value of _____________, it would look like this…” Don’t be afraid to paint a verbal picture of an ideal holiday situation, event, or relationship.
  4. Now, choose one thing you can do to realign your holiday with your value.

Here’s what I would write:

  1. My 3 values are family, gratitude, tradition.
  2. I’m going to focus on gratitude.
  3. If the holiday were in alignment with my value of gratitude, it would look like this…

“This has been one of those exhausting days. After a full day of work, I ran by the dollar store to pick up wrapping paper and tape; then stopped at the grocery store for sugar and flour so I could make cookies after dinner for tomorrow’s cookie exchange at the office. Finally, I’m in my pj’s and bathrobe, sitting in my favorite chair with a glass of wine. I lean back, close my eyes and think about one thing in my day that I’m most grateful for. Then I remembered the little girl sitting in the grocery cart in front of me while we stood in line. Her Mom was busy unloading the groceries. The child, about three years old, looked me in the eye and smiled. I smiled back and said “Hi!” Then she announced proudly, “Santa’s coming!” “Yes,” I said, “he’ll be here soon.” And I thought of when my own kids were small and how excited they’d be when they saw the Salvation Army volunteers with their red Santa hats ringing bells outside the grocery store. They’d turn to me and ask for a few coins to donate; then they’d drop them into the kettle and run back to me. I pick up my journal and write one sentence: Today I am grateful for the innocence of children and their open-eyed wonder that restores, for me, the true meaning of the season.

  • To realign my holiday with my value of gratitude, I am going to take just 5 minutes daily to write one sentence at the end of the day and express my gratitude for this holiday season.

Helen Keller, American educator, advocate for the blind and deaf and co-founder of the ACLU, reminds us, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”  But when we’re stressed, it’s easy to get caught up in the “doing” and miss the “heart” of the holiday season. May you find peace in this holiday season and in the new year.  

Unplug

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Anne Lamott

Unplug from stress? Is it even possible? When the day starts and ends with a long traffic-filled commute to work followed by carpooling the kids to soccer practice, dinner prep and homework, you probably fall into bed exhausted with your heart still racing. It’s hard to get to sleep, hard to unload the day and relax. And, a sleepless night is not what you need!
Sound familiar? This is 21st century stress, a condition we all struggle with when we’re busy and engaged with living. You want to unplug, but it’s not easy. This is when Write To Be Well steps in to help you clear your mind and prepare for sleep. It’s a technique you can use at bedtime or anytime in the day when stress, anxiety and negative thoughts fill your head. Here’s how it works.
Writing gives you space to reflect, understand the day and see the past as well as the future more clearly. By unloading your day, you remove mental blocks and use all your brainpower to better understand yourself, others, and the world around you. Writing is a meditative exercise. It actually helps you breathe more deeply so you can relax. You can write for just 5 minutes or take longer as needed. Follow these 4 prompts to clear your mind and unplug from stress.
1) Write about whatever happened in your day that is still lingering in your mind.
2) What do you value that your stress is undermining? What would life look like without that stress?
3) What can you do differently tomorrow to reduce the stress and improve your outcome?
4) Reflect on what you’ve written. What has your writing revealed about your stress? 

Technology – Love It, Hate It!

I’ve had a tough week with technology. My laptop computer blew up. It literally popped and went dark. Fortunately, there was no fire! I knew I was in trouble. Then, on top of that, I started getting international spam calls from Armenia, Georgia and Serbia. My cell phone’s been ringing from 3 am until 6 am and again around dinner time. Can you identify with any of this? The onslaught of calls on top of a dead laptop set my nerves on edge. I had lost control over the technology that was an integral part of my life! And my gut was telling me my relationship with it would never be the same. 

I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do to regain my equilibrium.

So I turned to Write to Be Well to come up with a game plan. I quickly went through the first three steps, jotting down my feelings, affirming that I am competent, and coming up with a plan of attack. It wasn’t until I reflected on my readiness to change, that I began to acknowledge I could deal with new and different technology and live comfortably with it once again. I calmed down and felt the stress begin to melt away. 

Here’s how my reflection, the last step in the Write to Be Well method, helped me. I reflected on three questions: 1) Am I confident in my ability to move forward? 2) What is my attitude about carrying out my action plan? 3) How will I hold myself accountable?

I responded: 1) I have a love/hate relationship with technology. It’s hard to learn all the features of a new laptop, but it’s not like this is my first computer. I know it’ll take time. I just need to be patient with myself. 2) My laptop is dead and my cell phone is compromised. Both were beyond my control. It just happened. I need to deal with this and regain control over my technology. First step, purchase a new laptop. My 2012 model is considered “vintage,” unsalvageable! Fortunately, the data can be retrieved. Second step, add a call-blocking app to my phone. With a plan in mind, I feel better. I’m pumped and ready to take action! 3) To be accountable, I’m giving myself 3 days to research and make a laptop purchase; I’m adding the app to my phone today. I’ll feel better once I get started.

If you feel overwhelmed and out of control with any aspect of your life, step back and reflect on what it is you need to do to regain your sense of equilibrium. Answer the same three questions I did or try these:

  1. Are there obstacles in your way that prevent you from going forward? How will you address them? What will you do once you’ve removed the blocks?
  2. Write from the perspective of your best friend. What would he/she say or advise you to do? Is this good advice? Why or why not?
  3. What will keep you accountable in your efforts to re-establish equilibrium? Do you need to set up a reward system to keep you going forward? What will keep you motivated?

Write on! 

Body Talk

The symptoms in the body are often the only way that the soul can get our attention.”

— Christine Northrup, MD

What the Body Says:

I’ve been sick for the last few days with a miserable flu/cold – runny nose, sore throat, chills and a cough that racks my body like a thunderous explosion. I’ve been trying to listen to what my body needs and heed its advice. But I feel numb. I’m not sure I can tap into my body knowledge when it’s feeling so disconnected from the rest of me. This is when a quick conversation with my body might help…

Me: I’m just no good at lying in bed. I’m never sick. But this cold has really taken away a lot of my steam. I’m so tired.

Body: Stop fighting me! Listen to what I’m trying to tell you. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking it easy today – or even for a few days. Besides, you shouldn’t be around people. You might give them this nasty virus.

Me: You’re right. I need to quarantine myself, drink plenty of fluids and rest. I’ll just climb into bed.

Body: That’s a good start. It would certainly make me feel better.

How often do you listen, really listen, to your body? Not just the stomach growling noises meaning hunger, but the subtle nuances that can be keys to good health? Do you notice when your body is holding tension? Do you feel the tightness across your shoulders or the pain in your stomach? Do you notice changes in your daily functions or your lack of energy when you don’t get a good night’s sleep?

Most of us are not in touch with our bodies. They’ve been good to us over the years so we’re in the habit of assuming they’re not going to change. But there comes a time, when something will change. It may come slowly in the form of an arthritic knee or whack you over the head like a diagnosis of cancer. Either way, it’s time to listen to what your body has to say.  It  can provide valuable clues to your health.

“and the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized…

And sometimes my body disgusts me.
Filling and emptying it disgusts me…

This long struggle to be at home
In the body, this difficult friendship.”

— Jane Kenyon (From “Cages” in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems 1996)

Writing Prompts

  1. Write a conversation between yourself and your body. Is your body trying to tell you something?
  2. Do you have a “difficult friendship” with your body? What makes this phrase true or false for you?
  3. Pay tribute or complaint to your body.

A New Twist on Change

I was recently talking to a friend who told me her mom had lost 150 pounds over a two-year period. She said Arlene, her 5-foot-10-inch mom, was an emotional eater whose weight had inched up to over 300 pounds. Although Arlene knew she had to address her weight, it wasn’t until she had a fall and landed in the hospital with a bad knee injury that she decided to take action.

By working with a counselor and dietician, Arlene came up with an exercise plan to control her binge eating. She decided she wouldn’t watch any TV except during exercise. She started pedaling on her stationery bike or walking on her treadmill for 5 minutes at a time. Slowly she built up her stamina to over an hour.

Journaling the Goals…

To stay true to her mission, she wrote in her journal about her emotions, her successes, her shortcomings and her goals. She even started a food diary. She said the writing relieved her stress around eating and kept her accountable to herself. Two years later, she hit her goal of 150 pounds.

That’s the kind of change that takes courage — the courage to face the truth and change the bad habits into good ones. It also takes “stick-to-it” determination. Arlene said writing made the difference for her … and it has for others too!

Scientific studies prove that individuals can be motivated by clear goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. Being highly motivated to reach a goal, in turn, improves overall performance.  Science also proves that goal-setting is more effective when it’s in the written form of a plan. The theory is that written goals transform “fantasies into realities” and help you reach your destination.

Is there a change you’d like to make in your life?

Try writing down your goals and a plan to reach them. You just might find those problems that stress you out and impact your health can be assuaged with pen and paper.

Here’s a prompt to get you started…

Everyday we have a choice regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. Write for 15 minutes about your attitude toward change.