Writing as an antidote to loneliness

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

The UnLonely Project

Comments:

  1. Janet

    writing has always been a way for me to express my inner most feelings that most people really dont want to be bothered with because they consider them to heavy. yes, some of the most wonderful stories are a blended mix of turning a bad into a good..or finding a sense of humor in something awful but there is also those stories where it is just so sad what has happened that even with a detachment from it a degree of compassion still brings tears to the one it happened to as well as the hard hearted who dont want to be moved to this deeper emotion. these are the ones who instead of being a friend tell you to hire a therapist. i sure have acted as therapist with a number of friends they say successfully and have a few of those friends as well. those who throw you a dagger to bring hurtful feelings out are usually the same that put you down for doing so…get rid of them. the pen is my saving grace. Great article. Thanks.

  2. Nancy Davidoff Kelton

    Great article! I totally agree. I’ve been an instructor of personal essay/memoir writing at the New School and elsewhere forever, and widely published writer of personal essays and books including: “Finding Mr. Rightstein”(memoir) and “Writing From Personal Experience” (how-to/how-I book on writing) even longer.
    I offer writing workshops at the Strand Bookstore. https://www.strandbooks.com/event/personal-in-print-nancy-davidoff-kelton

    Students in my advanced class–some in their 70s–have been with me for more than a decade and not because they flunked. They are inspired. Excited. Writing better and better. Revising. Getting their work published. And totally thrilled to be engaged in the process. I am, too. As an instructor and as a writer. I feel so lucky. So blessed.

  3. Duncan Smith

    There is a reviving interest in narrative therapy exemplified by Columbia University offering an MSW degree in narrative therapy . I came to psychotherapy from teaching literature at Brown University. All of life is story telling, story listening, so the use of narrative seems obvious to me. I found it inescapable in sessions with clients because the clients were full of stories some or all of which were closely connected to whatever was problematic in their lives. So many works of great and ordinary literatures in all cultures are powerful expressions of unresolved life conflicts and I believe this is true both of Goethe’s works and those of P.G. Wodehouse, Kleist, Turgenev, and all of the clients I have worked with. I was often asked what is the connection between your work as a scholar and teacher of literatures and your later career in psychotherapy. It was obvious to me and so I was delighted to read about the Columbia program. Healing is in part finding endings and beginnings of stories whether we term them bedtime stories or creative writing. I recommend storytelling as a valuable way to begin and to work on treatments of all clients no matter their diagnoses.

  4. EC Ivorian-Jones

    An interesting article. This is something I have intended to take up for some time. Are there advice books on how to plan and follow through ?

    Thank you.

  5. Tigerlark

    My late mother, a retired teacher, ran a very successful group for older people where they wrote their life story or episodes and anecdotes from their life. They met twice a month to share their work, reading aloud or handing around copies of their latest writing.

    The mood transformation and focus was remarkable. There was a very happy, often excited vibe at the meetings – which also featured a nice afternoon tea.

    (In between times some contacted my mother for a bit of encouragement, editing or typing up wavering handwriting. A natural helper, it was something she took pleasure in doing.)

    My mother was sometimes approached by adult children to say how much enjoyment and interest it had brought to the lives of a parent who had previously been inactive, lonely or mentally switched off. Some of these people had become very absorbed and enthusiastic writing an account of their lives for their children and grandchildren.

    I am sure others have done similar things in their local community centers or retirement villages. But those who haven’t should think about it. With the right volunteer at the helm, it costs very little to run.

  6. Chbvsprasad

    Nice I too have been suffering from the lonely Ness and need some help

  7. Joan Candler

    The AWA, Amherst Writers and Artists, provides writing classes and workshops through their trained group leaders. Google them and find a writing group near you that offers a positive unique experience to all people regardless of economic class or educational level.
    Good luck!

  8. Jeremy Nobel

    You are exactly correct about that. While loneliness is different from depression, many people experience both simultaneously. One benefit of writing and sharing that work with others is that by moving past the stigma of loneliness, those who are struggling not just with depression but with substance abuse and addiction issues can often through those increased positive social connections get the support and encouragement that leads to them reaching out directly to the healthcare system for the mental health assistance they might benefit from.

  9. Jeremy Nobel

    Responding to Azure, you are asking an important and central question from a public health perspective which is that if expressive writing offers such important “connection” opportunities, how do we best make those opportunities broadly available to all who might benefit? While creative writing groups are indeed available across the country, typically informal and organized by writers themselves, and often sponsored by community organizations, I think much more can be done to expand and promote those opportunities as well as to provide guidance and support to novice writers so they don’t feel intimidated as they expand their writing skills. Its a perfect opportunity for organizations as diverse as YMCA’s and faith-based groups, as well as colleges and universities, libraries, museums and community centers to offer expressive writing workshops and “meet-ups” where the sharing of work can be done in an encouraging and safe setting. Note that these are NOT therapy groups, but rather support opportunities, where people can through writing share their “lived experiences”and thoughts about them with others and feel more connected and less lonely. Our UnLonely Project is actively developing tools and guides that these community-based groups can utilize so they don’t have to be developed from scratch. And YES, these experiences CAN be offered online. Best delivered through a variety of well designed “sharing spaces” that unlike more typical Social Media exchanges invite participants to share and comment on each others work within a “digital community” setting that is supportive and accepting. Hope that helps answer your good questions!

  10. azure

    If you’re lonely & have few if any real friends, just WHO is it will you be “exchanging” your “expressive writing” with? “who are feeling lonely and isolated to define, shape, and exchange their personal stories. Expressive writing, especially when shared, helps foster social connections.”

    Do explain. Are you suggesting that there are support groups existing everywhere in the US that people can easily attend? Feel comfortable attending? Or are they supposed to do it online? Via “social media” –the isolating media?

  11. Ry The Health Guy

    This was a great article! Some folks that tend to suffer from loneliness often suffer from depression without even knowing it

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