WRITING AS A COPING TOOL
John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the US, diligently kept a daily diary. He began in 1779 when he was 12, and made his final entry three days before his death in 1848. This remarkable enterprise, a gold mine for historians and biographers, was also an activity that brought Adams a lot of personal satisfaction. In the diary, he not only recorded daily events and adventures, but also reflections and analyses about his emotions, needs, frustrations, and insights.
Perhaps you keep a diary, or maybe you know someone who does. Usually, we don’t think much about diaries because they typically involve just reporting on a day’s activities and events. We bet, however, there have been times when you felt hurt or angry, sat down and wrote about it, and almost miraculously felt better about things, if not immediately at least within a day or two.
As with Quincy Adams, diaries are often much more than a simple recording of events of the day. That is, the writing often lays out how you feel as the result of some event. Examples might include the breakup of a relationship, death of a loved one, being in an accident, being a victim of crime, etc. There is interesting research showing that this more analytical personal writing can have positive effects by giving the writer a feeling of dealing better with the challenges of stress. Writing about personal crises seems to allow the writer to feel psychologically stronger and more empowered.
What’s going on here? Does putting your thoughts on paper function like some sort of energy release of negative thoughts and feelings, “getting it off your chest,” and cleansing yourself of negative emotions? Most psychologists think probably not. In fact, researchers in this area stress writing as a process that allows you to restructure your thinking about troublesome issues. That is, as you write about your reaction to events and evaluate how you feel, you’re actually dealing with your emotions at some intellectual and cognitive level, and allowing yourself to see things in a new perspective while thinking them through. Sounds like some sort of self-therapy, doesn’t it?
As an example, consider this entry in John Quincy Adams’ diary, related by biographer Fred Kaplan. Adams and his wife, Louisa, had just lost their infant daughter, who succumbed to dysentery after only 11 months of life. Adams noted the “keen and severe” pain they suffered upon her death. “She was precisely at the age when every gesture was a charm, every look delight; every imperfect but improving accent, at once rapture and promise. To all this we have been called to bid adieu, stung by the memory of what we already enjoyed.” Yes, these are the heavy words of sorrow, but they also convey gratitude for the beautiful time they enjoyed with this child. Adams’ words clearly show him taking the first tentative steps toward dealing with grief and taking something positive from their daughter’s brief life.
A bonus positive consequence from diary writing is that the subject matter does not have to be about things bothering you. In fact, research shows that when people write “to themselves” about a committed relationship they’re in, and describe their deepest thoughts and feelings concerning this relationship, their subsequent email communication with their partner contains more positive expressive phrases. These words tend to elicit similar positive replies. The lesson here is that putting positive thoughts and feelings about a relationship down on paper can actually improve communication with your partner.
These findings are pretty impressive. Write down how you feel about emotional issues in your life, how you deal with them, and how you react to them. Doing so can potentially bring you psychological benefits, and can even enhance communication in your interpersonal relationships. How’s that for effective coping!
If you’re in a committed relationship, now might be a good time to take a break and email or text your significant other. Share some positive emotions and what they mean to you. And at the end of each day, try and take a little time for yourself; reflect on your day and the emotions you experienced. What do those reactions tell you about yourself? Use your reflections to allow yourself to engage in some self-awareness and assessment about where you are with respect to meeting challenges in your life.