Creativity can work wonders for mental health: Experts tout artistic practices like writing as beneficial for decreasing depressive symptoms, increasing positive emotions, and reducing stress responses. “Creativity is increasingly being validated as a potent mind-body approach as well as a cost-effective intervention to address a variety of challenges throughout the lifespan,” therapist and visual artist Cathy Malchiodi wrote in Psychology Today. But the benefits of creativity aren’t just mental. New studies show us that certain kinds of creativity, especially writing, can have equally positive outcomes for physical health.
Journaling has its own perks, but if you want to reap the full gamut of writing’s benefits — which can include improvements in physical wellness — you may have to dig a little deeper and engage in expressive writing, which writer and scholar John F. Evans describes as emotional writing that comes from our core. “Expressive writing is personal and emotional writing without regard to form or other writing conventions like spelling, punctuation, and verb agreement,” he wrote in Psychology Today. “Expressive writing pays more attention to feelings than the events, memories, objects, or people in the contents of a narrative [and is] not so much what happened as it is about how you feel about what happened or is happening.”
In addition to the more obvious mental benefits of processing our emotions, research shows that expressive writing can have significant (and surprising) effects on our physical health. In one study, college students wrote for 15 minutes for four consecutive days about traumatic or upsetting experiences, while another group of students wrote about superficial topics, like the details of the room they were in or the shoes they were wearing.
Those who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings reported physical health benefits, including fewer doctor visits and fewer absences due to illness, improved immunity, lower blood pressure, and better lung and liver function.
How exactly does it work? At the core of expressive writing is working through difficult topics. One theory has to do with how our bodies react when we store and release pent-up emotions. Have you ever noticed how your shoulders are tense or your sleep quality is compromised when you carry an emotional load without processing it? That’s because our bodies and minds are inherently connected. Medical experts agree that trauma affects us physically, so it only makes sense that working through our emotions can benefit our bodies.
In many ways, addressing difficult personal topics through writing is similar to counseling in that it allows us to face emotions we may have stifled. According to psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker, “Confronting a trauma through talking or writing about it and acknowledging the associated emotions is thought to reduce the physiological work of inhibition, gradually lowering the overall stress on the body.”
Another one of Pennebaker’s theories about why expressive writing can benefit us physically relates to how we organize information about trauma in our brains. When we restructure emotions and memories through expressive writing, we begin to view ourselves differently, which can affect how we behave. Other scholars think simply exposing ourselves to stressful memories can cause “extinction” of negative emotional and physical responses. All of this research contributes to the concept of neuroplasticity, which suggests that we can actually change our brains through practices like mindfulness and therapy.
No matter why our brains and bodies react the way they do to expressive writing, research suggests that working through our emotions is typically both mentally and physically beneficial. If you’re interested in using writing to work through your emotions, talk to a mental health practitioner about how to integrate it into your life — and watch how your mind and body work together in health.
Have you ever practiced expressive writing? Tell us your experience @BritandCo.
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