Get the Write Stuff to Handle Life's Issues

December 22, 2016 James DeCock, MD


In a world where we tend to express ourselves with emojis or in 140 characters or less, taking the time to write complete paragraphs seems positively quaint. But sitting down and translating our thoughts and feelings into words--whether in a letter to a loved one or a private journal--can actually be good for our well-being, says James DeCock, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group.

"Expressive writing asks us to scratch the surface and record our deeper feelings on a regular basis," says Dr. DeCock. "No one ever has to see what we write if we want to keep it private and we don't have to worry about punctuation or grammar. It's all about the content, not the style of writing."

Ideally, expressive writing requires setting aside about 15 to 20 minutes a few times a week to be alone with our thoughts. The events of the day can be a jumping-off point, but they should lead into an exploration and examination of feelings. "Relationships, past events, current struggles--they all can be topics worthy of mining in expressive writing," Dr. DeCock says. "Getting these emotions out of our minds and out in the open can be cathartic, a way to find peace and ease stress."

Research indicates that writing may help with various health issues, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and irritable bowl syndrome; it may also speed the healing process. In addition to the physical effects, expressive writing may have some psychological benefits. Studies suggest the writing process can ease anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress, and it allows people with chronic or serious illnesses to better cope with their medical condition.

"Writing about our problems can help us solve them--perhaps the problem doesn't look as bad in black and white, or we can discover a solution as we read back our writing," Dr. DeCock says. "We can step back and get a better handle on our emotions, and by doing that we get a new perspective that can help resolve the issue at hand. And it can be a good way to get raging emotions out of our system without saying something harmful to another person."

Relationships can also benefit from letter writing, whether it's renewing a friendship, thanking a loved one, or trying to iron out a misunderstanding or a long-held grievance. "With the latter, it's a time to carefully consider the words being used, unlike journal entries that may be too raw," Dr. DeCock says. "A journal entry about the relationship can be used as a first draft in a way--everything gets put down on paper, and then we can self-edit it to make sure the message gets across in a clear way."

Letter writing has also been found useful for people at the end of their lives to express themselves on a number of topics, from saying final "I love you's" to family members to repairing broken relationships to detailing final wishes for treatment as in an advance directive. For instance, the Stanford Letter Project (see link below) offers templates to help people get started.

"Expressive writing may seem hard at first--it can dredge up some overwhelming emotions we haven't wanted to deal with," Dr. DeCock. "But the potential physical, emotional and relational benefits make it worth the effort." 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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