The Healing Power of Writing: Finding Calm and Resilience in Difficult Times

When I was told that the man I loved, the man I had only just married, was going to die from cancer, I instinctively bought a journal. I needed to document my complicated feelings. Writing things down helped me hold on to the pieces of myself as I was falling apart. 

Writing quite literally became my life saver, my on-call therapist, available to me 24/7.

When I was asked to evacuate my home in Mission Beach, three weeks after the funeral, ahead of a category five cyclone, the first thing I threw into the back of my car was a plastic box with a dozen journals. My journals were my most important possession in the face of a devastating natural disaster. The journals helped me to own my story.

A decade later, in March 2020 when Australia shut its borders, I became stranded with a carry-on, separated from my partner and from my new home in Hoi An. But I knew I would be ok in a global pandemic. 

Writing things down has trained me to be my own therapist. It has kept me grounded in times of crisis and it has helped me heal.

Writing to heal can be your life saver too. All it takes is ten minutes a day. Five will do in a pinch.

The Healing Power of Writing: Scientific Evidence

Scientific research shows that the emotional release we receive from journaling can lower stress and anxiety. It has been shown to lead to an improved immune system and aid our overall physical and emotional well-being.

Writing things down helps us confront challenging and painful experiences. It builds resilience by allowing us to process, release and make meaning of complex emotions. It is a way of releasing story lines that keep us stuck. 

James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, pioneered research on the healing power of writing. People who wrote about traumatic events, he found, experienced improved physical and mental health. Writing helps us make complex experiences more manageable and graspable. It offers a way to re-evaluate the past by looking at it in new ways.

Writing to Heal: how do I get started?

How do I get started and what do I write about, are the two most frequent questions my students ask. The answer is simple. There is no right or wrong when it comes to a personal writing practice.

You may want to do Morning Pages, ie. write three pages by hand first thing in the morning. Or you might write a gratitude journal before bed.

The important thing is to give yourself permission to write freely, without allowing your inner critic to hold you back. What you write should be for your eyes only. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Just write as it wants to pour out of you.

Timed free-writing sessions will help you get the words out. Use the timer on your phone. Anything between five to ten minutes is great.

Use pen and paper. It will slow you down so that you can bear witness to the stories you carry. Computers are a distraction and you’ll be tempted to edit your words as you write. You want to capture first thoughts and raw emotions in your journal. Writing things down and editing are two different processes.

Make sure your writing is safe. Think of your journal as your sacred space where you can show up authentically, without filters, without make-up. Where you can safely say the things you are ashamed to verbalise, where you can vent and rage and most of all, where you can be vulnerable.

How to access the healing power of writing

1. Do a brain dump

Dump whatever is in your head onto the page. Just get the words out. It’s ok if it feels like you’re vomiting on the page. Think of it as decluttering your head. You are dumping your thoughts, emotions, doubts…whatever it is that needs to be let go of, so that your mind can become spacious and calm.

2. Write a diary

Writing a diary can be as simple as writing about your day. Write about the things you did and did not do, the people you interacted with, the things you ate, the news you watched, the things you did or did not do to care for yourself or the ways you allowed the news to affect your anxiety levels. Think of a diary as a way of making an inventory of your heart.

Date each entry so that you can track your internal changes and personal transformation and healing over time.

3. Write to practice self-compassion

Write for 10-15 minutes about what you need from yourself to feel less vulnerable, less cranky, less anxious…or whatever you may be feeling right now.
Another great way to use writing as a self-compassion practice is to write a letter to yourself from the perspective a good friend, assuring you that whatever happens, you are loved and cared for.

4. Write a gratitude journal

Gratitude is a secret superpower that helps to build resilience and happiness. Too often we focus on what we lack—and right now we lack a lot of things that we used to take for granted before the pandemic. Gratitude is a way to look at what is abundant and good in our lives, despite the current crisis.

Writing a gratitude journal can be as simple as listing five things that you are grateful for at the end of every day: your warm bed at night, access to drinking water, your cat, your veggie garden, your inner resilience…

5. Use a writing prompt

A writing prompt can be a quote, an inspirational card, a photo, a question, or a sentence stem.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • A question: What does your heart need today?
  • A sentence stem: Today I feel…
  • A quote: “There is no greater agony than holding an untold story.” Maya Angelou. Tell me, what stories are you holding?

Don’t forget to set a timer. Write like nobody is watching!

For more ideas watch my TEDx talk on The Healing Power of Writing.

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Hi I am Kerstin

Kerstin Pilz

I am a published author and former academic with 20 years university teaching experience. I discovered the healing power of writing when I went through the darkness of grief. Writing was my lifesaver.
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