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Harvard Health Blog
Writing as an antidote to loneliness
- By Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, Contributor
It may not seem possible to be able to write your way to better health. But as a doctor, a public health practitioner, and a poet myself, I know what the scientific data have to say about this: when people write about what’s in their hearts and minds, they feel better and get healthier. And it isn’t just that they’re getting their troubles off their chests.
Writing provides a rewarding means of exploring and expressing feelings. It allows you to make sense of yourself and the world you are experiencing. Having a deeper understanding of how you think and feel — that self-knowledge — provides you with a stronger connection to yourself. It’s that connection that often allows you to move past negative emotions (like guilt and shame) and instead access positive ones (like optimism or empathy), fostering a sense of connection to others in addition to oneself.
Making connections is key
It’s remarkable that the sense of connection to others that one can feel when writing expressively can occur even when people are not engaged directly. Think of being at a movie or concert and experiencing something dramatic or uplifting. Just knowing that everyone else at the theater is sharing an experience can make you feel connected to them, even if you never talk about it. Expressive writing can have the same connecting effect, as you write about things that you recognize others may also be experiencing, even if those experiences differ. And if you share your writing, you can enhance your connection to someone else even more. That benefit is energizing, life-enhancing, and even lifesaving in a world where loneliness — and the ill health it can lead to — has become an epidemic.
Maybe it’s time to pay greater attention to expressive writing as one important way to enhance a sense of connection to others. Social connection is crucial to human development, health, and survival, but current research suggests that social connection is largely ignored as a health determinant. We ignore that relationship at our peril, since emerging medical research indicates that a lack of social connections can have a profound influence on risk for mortality, and is associated with up to a 30% risk for early death — as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation and loneliness can have additional long-term effects on your health including impaired immune function and increased inflammation, promoting arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
How expressive writing battles loneliness
Picking up a pen can be a powerful intervention against loneliness. I am a strong believer in writing as a way for people who are feeling lonely and isolated to define, shape, and exchange their personal stories. Expressive writing, especially when shared, helps foster social connections. It can reduce the burden of loneliness among the many groups who are most at risk, including older adults, caregivers, those with major illnesses, those with disabilities, veterans, young adults, minority communities of all sorts, and immigrants and refugees.
Writing helps us to operate in the past, present, and future all at once. When you put pen to paper you are operating in the present moment, even while your brain is actively making sense of the recalled past, choosing and shaping words and lines. But the brain also is operating in the future, as it pictures a person reading the very words you are actively writing. When expressing themselves in writing, people are actually creating an artifact — a symbol of some of their thoughts and feelings. People often can write what they find difficult to speak, and so they explore deeper truths. This process of expression through the written word can build trust and bonds with others in unthreatening ways, forging a path toward a more aware and connected life.
When people tell their personal stories through writing, whether in letters to friends or family, or in journals for themselves, or in online blog posts, or in conventionally published work, they often discover a means of organizing and understanding their own thoughts and experiences. Writing helps demystify the unknown and reduce fears, especially when we share those written concerns with others.
Write for your health
As a poet, I’ve personally experienced the benefits of expressive writing. The skills it sharpens; the experience of sharing ideas, feelings, and perceptions on a page; the sensations of intellectual stimulus and emotional relief — all are life enhancing. I’d like more people to discover that expressive writing can contribute to well-being, just as exercise and healthful eating do.
I’ve documented some of the research being done in the area of healing and the arts. After reviewing more than 100 studies, we concluded that creative expression improves health by lowering depression and stress while boosting healthy emotions. So pick up a pen, and start to write creatively. For the mind and the body, writing is a strong prescription for good health.
Follow me on Twitter @JeremyNobel1
The Foundation for Art & Healing
About the Author
Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, Contributor
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