I can attest from my own experience that life story writing can be a powerfully self-affirming journey. Looking at an overview of your life as a whole gives you a unique perspective. For me, I was able to make connections between seemingly disparate events that I hadn't noticed until I started to write about them. Seeing those connections, some things that had confused me for years suddenly started to make sense.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association established a link between writing about stressful experiences and improved health. The co-author of the study, Joshua M. Smyth, explains, “It actually has little to do with raw catharsis, which, I think, is what people assume.” Rather, the health benefits were a result of cognitive restructuring, or learning to see problems in a new way.
We often counsel our clients to "let it all out" in a first draft for two reasons: first, you are more likely to write authentically without self-editing or judging; and second, it is cathartic. (For some, this is freeing; for others painful.) But it is in the process of reviewing, organizing, and editing the writing that those cognitive connections are made, that perspective is achieved. And perspective is power. While we can't always control our situations in life, we can often control our perspective.
A few reasons why writing can help your brain and your spirit:
- Create order out of chaos. Just the act of organizing your past into a system, whether chronological or otherwise, can help you see your life in a different way and, according to neuroscientists, can even change your brain's organic structure.
- Beyond catharsis. Yes, getting it all out can be helpful, but careful editing after the catharsis can help you determine what is really most important for you to impart to others.
- Overview of your accomplishments. Give yourself a hand; you've probably accomplished more than you think you have. And those accomplishments are more than just what you've owned or achieved, but who you've become.
- Gratitude for what you have. Your life isn't just hardships and challenges, it's the luck you've found and the blessings you've received. And realizing that sometimes they are one and the same.
- Keep your mind sharp. Organizing your life into a structure, looking for patterns, and finding the words to express yourself is great mental exercise.
- Identify your strengths. Looking at the past can remind us of how tough we must be, because, hey, we're still here.
- Motivation for the future. Looking back helps you realize what you still haven't done and what priorities you have moving forward.
- Release valve! For years, I kept "junk journals" in which I would get out all my fears and frustrations so I could face my day in peace. They were never meant for public consumption (including by me!) but they served their purpose. Just the act of writing, not the words I wrote, helped me get through a tough time.