“My teacher brought me my tablet. Why did you speak when I wasn’t here? he said, and lashed me with the cane. Why didn’t you keep your head up when I wasn’t here? And he whipped me with the cane. Why did you go out when I wasn’t here? “And he whipped me with the stick.”
Writing in the morning improves your physical and mental health
This little episode of bullying is, surprisingly, one of the oldest writings that have come down to us. An apprentice scribe put it in cuneiform characters on a clay tablet in Sumer around 2000 BCE. The story ends well (more or less): the father bribes the master, who begins to treat the apprentice with respect.
But what is most revealing is that it is also one of the first written documents that is not an accounting record, that does not deal with how many sacks of grain went in and out, as was the original purpose of the deed. Instead, it is a person talking about his problems through the written word.
Anyone who has written a letter full of pain and blame to someone who has abandoned or betrayed us knows that we feel relief afterwards, even if we never send the letter (or the email). Research in recent years has proven that when we write we process our ideas in a very different way than when we think or speak, something that can have many benefits for our mental health, and that has driven the fashion of journaling around the world.
This is how the brain changes when reading and writing
Modern humans appeared about 200,000 years ago, but we only learned to write in the last 5,000, and certainly not all of them. In 1800, 88% of humanity was illiterate. In the blink of an eye, in historical terms, the situation has turned around and we have come to have a 86% of humans able to read and write in the planet.
In such a short time, human brains haven’t had time to evolve to read and write. However, our brains are flexible and capable of adapting to change, and some areas have had to rewire themselves to learn this new skill. When we learn to read and write, the brain recycles parts that we used for other purposes, something that has been verified with people who learned to read at the age of 30.
Even before writing existed, the brainstem amplified visual information so that higher-level brain regions could make sense of it, while the thalamus region acted as a filter that selected the most relevant environmental information. This allowed us to distinguish when the bushes were moving in the wind, or when there was a lion hiding behind. This system also processed the expressions of other human beings to interpret them.
This process has been observed live. In a 2009 study of 8- to 10-year-olds, researchers found that as their reading ability improved, the production of new white matter in the brain, that is, new connections were created between the different neurons.
What is the use of writing a diary?
The beneficial effects of reading have long been known about brain functions, from memory and learning to empathy, as well as preventing Alzheimer’s and reducing stress. But what about the writing?
The benefits of writing are different from, and in some ways deeper than, those of reading or talking to other people. Writing has been revealed as something especially useful for dealing with emotional problems.
In a classic 1986 study by Dr. James W. Pennebaker Several people were asked to think of a personal experience that they found very stressful or traumatic. Then he divided them into two groups. Some wrote for 15 minutes about the traumatic experience, while the others wrote about neutral things, like their breakfast or their shoes. People who wrote about their concerns improved their mood and the number of visits to the doctor was reduced in those who were in treatment.
In other experiments, this method of writing about worries and traumas, called expressive writing, was found to have measurable physiological effects: Subjects found that they lowered blood pressure and other indicators of stress, and that the changes were maintained months after the writing exercise. expressive writing too improves the immune system and even can make wounds heal faster.
Awareness of these benefits has made journal writing fashionable. What used to be typical of teenagers has now become a habit praised by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and businessmen, mixed with time management techniques, such as the famous Bullet Journal.
But aside from organizing our day, can journaling make us feel better? And if so, how?
Get it out of your head, don’t keep it to yourself
Dr. Pennebaker’s own explanation in his book “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions” is that when a problem or traumatic experience upsets us emotionally, stopping thinking about it requires an effort. This tension resulting from inhibiting our negative thoughts produces stress, which builds up in the body and leads to long-term illness. In this way, writing about these emotions would reduce the work of inhibition, and encourage these negative experiences to integrate, that is, instead of causing us constant discomfort, they become just another memory.
However, writing also helped people who wrote about imaginary traumas that they had not actually experienced, and therefore did not need to inhibit. This leads researchers to think that there are other factors besides the effort to suppress bad thoughts.
Another explanation is that writing helps us with emotional regulation, that is, our ability to overcome emotions and control our response. Among the strategies to modulate our emotional response is taking distance and changing the point of view, which is precisely what we achieve by writing about it. The act of writing forces us to create a narrative of what happened and give it structure, and that gives us the opportunity to control the emotional response later on.
Finally, it has been found that the opposite option, of repressing problems, worries and traumatic experiences negatively affects health and aggravates symptoms of depression. As is popularly said, “if you keep it, it eats you from the inside”. Exposure, that is, facing the negative experience, makes it lose strength, but only if the exposure occurs in a safe environment.
Is it useful then to tell the problems to a friend? Talking to a person about our problems can put us in a complicated situation, because we also have to face the fear that that person will judge us negatively, even when that person is “safe,” like a good friend or therapist. When we write, on the other hand, we don’t have to be afraid of the opinions of others. Those pages allow us to see our own emotions as an outside observer, and put them in their place.
Expressive writing is not difficult at all, and here are some of Dr. Pennebaker’s pointers on how to use it to improve our mental state:
- Write for 20 minutes about the thoughts and emotions we experience when remembering a negative, stressful or traumatic experience.
- It is not necessary to write every day, it is enough to do it three or four times on consecutive days.
- You can write about the same problem or different problems on different days.
- Write in a private and quiet place, away from distractions.
- Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, the only rule is that once you start writing, keep going until the 20 minutes are up.
- What you write is for you.
- No need to spend a fortune on fancy notebooks or fountain pens, the system works just as well typing on a computer keyboard.
- Set aside 10 minutes to rest after exercise.
What is all this based on?
Photo: Flood G.