Express Yourself: Writing to Cope with Chronic Illness

Growing up, writing in a diary or journal may have helped you work out some of your teenage angst. Like getting older, living with a chronic illness can be a confusing, painful and frustrating experience, and expressive writing can be a way for you to express your frustrations, better understand your own experience and cope.

Let It Out: How Expressive Writing Can Help You Cope

Expressive writing is a form of personal writing that focuses on certain life events, memories and interactions. It is not meant to be a polished piece ready for publishing. Rather, it is a tool for exploring your emotions and thoughts for your well-being.

James W. Pennebaker is the social psychologist who pioneered research looking at the health benefits of expressive writing. He developed what is known in the community as the Pennebaker Writing Prompt, which is as follows:

“In your writing, I would like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts about the most traumatic experience in your entire life. You might tie this trauma to other parts of your life: your childhood, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, relatives or other people important to you. You might link your writing to your future and who you would like to become your future, or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. Not everyone has had a single trauma but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors and you can write about these as well. All your writing is confidential. There will be no sharing of content. Do not worry about form or style, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, or grammar.”

Pennebaker’s research studies and related studies show that the act of writing about stressful or emotional events can lead to significantly better psychological and physical outcomes by reducing stress and clarifying any confusing feelings. Writing is particularly helpful because it can be an active form of learning, where you become more aware about your own attitudes and beliefs. You can record what you’ve learned and understand how you came to learn these lessons, connecting content to the process. Then, you can check on your personal growth by re-reading older entries.

Want to get the most out of your time spent writing? Here are three things to consider before putting pen to paper.

Express Yourself

Studies have shown that avoidance of negative emotions and suppressing associated thoughts can impact your mental processing speed and impact relationships. So, when it comes to writing, take the time to fully express any of the emotions or thoughts that have been weighing you down, suggests chronic illness blogger Natasha Lipman. Don’t hold back; write anything at all. If there was a doctor who said something tactless, write about it. If you felt upset about something that you think was silly, write about it. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or sounding fancy. This is your moment.

“I tend to write the most when I’m particularly unwell, and it’s just been a really great coping mechanism,” says Lipman.

Be Reflective

After a writing session, look back at what you’ve written and read it over. Take the time to reflect on what you’ve written—why you thought this way, why you felt this way, what you got out of the experience and future possibilities. Include those reflections in your writing.

This is what sets this expressive writing apart from journaling. Beyond expressing any raw emotion and thought, expressive writing that incorporates reflection can help you find meaning in your experience. The act of recording everyday events without reflecting on the event’s importance can actually be harmful. A study comparing two types of writing on a stressful event, one focused on emotion alone and one with both expression and reflection over the course of a month, found that writing about emotion alone can lead to more severe illness symptoms. On the other hand, writing with reflection brought about awareness of the positives that came out of the event.  

“The finding of increased positive growth in only the cognitions and emotions group suggests that engagement of both cognitions and emotions while journaling about a stressful or traumatic experience can raise awareness of the benefits of the event,” the researchers write. “In contrast, focusing solely on the emotional aspects of traumas may not produce a greater understanding of traumatic events.”

Share Your Work

While it’s by no means mandatory to experience the benefits of expressive writing, once you’ve been writing for a while, you may feel the urge to sharing your words with the world. There are many people who don’t understand what it’s like to live with a chronic illness, especially ones that are invisible, and starting a blog can be a way to both express yourself through writing and advocate for others.

Sharing your writing can also have several other benefits. In a 2012 study examining the benefits of blogging for people living with chronic illness and pain, many respondents reported several benefits including increased connection with others, decreased isolation and opportunities to share their story. Blogging also promoted accountability, and provided meaning and insight from the experience, making is easier to understand and cope with illness.

Getting Started

Ready to start writing? There are really no rules when it comes to writing about your illness, and you should feel free to share as much or as little as you want, says Lipman. And while she shares her work online, you don’t need to write with the intention of being read, she says.

“I find that the act of just writing can be incredibly cathartic,” says Lipman. “If you’re not a writer, find bloggers that inspire you or whose stories you want to keep following and engage with them.”

Chronicality is always looking for people with stories to share. Contact us to learn about how you can become a contributing writer.