Expressing your thoughts and feelings on paper is a powerful way to boost your health, healing, and happiness.
As you age, you’re hopefully eating the right foods, getting enough sleep and exercise, and staying engaged with life. These activities can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, reduce your stress, improve your memory, and give you the resilience you need to handle the challenges you face every day.
But did you know that more than 1,000 scientific studies support another effective self-care technique, one that provides the same benefits, is cost-free, and is something that anyone can do? It’s called “expressive writing.”
What Is Expressive Writing?
As its name implies, writing expressively doesn’t mean simply describing the things you’re doing; it involves recording your thoughts and feelings about those experiences. It can be a powerful tool to help you cope with issues typically experienced by older adults.
Think about it: As we enter our later years, we must adjust to natural changes in our physical and mental capabilities. Moreover, given our growing awareness of the passage of time, how we think and feel about who we are, what we have (or have not) done, the choices we make, our fears and desires, and the goals we set for ourselves can inspire us to want to increasingly explore—and discover—more facets of our identity and find better ways to live.
Why Does It Work?
Scientifically speaking, our mind and body are deeply connected, and how the two relate affects not only our daily health but also our mental resilience and emotional happiness. By writing expressively, we can actually trigger hormonal responses that reduce inflammation in our body caused by stress. We can also greatly improve the flow of signals in our brain that allow us to solve problems, store and retrieve information, and even be creative.
What’s great about expressive writing is that there is no one “right way” to do it. All you have to do is put into words those ideas and feelings meaningful and relevant to your life, to get to the heart of whatever is on your mind.
Try These Techniques
It all starts with journaling, the recording of your reflections on paper, in a computer, or digitally (audio or video). If you’ve never done any kind of journaling, you needn’t be intimidated by the process. It’s meant to be an engaging way to shift between self-exploration and self-discovery.
Of course, wanting to explore your thoughts and feelings takes courage, and wanting to discover new insights requires a commitment to being honest, even about the times you may resist the process. Whatever you do, don’t self-edit as you write, and don’t judge yourself afterward for whatever you have written.
While journaling is a serious endeavor, it can also be uplifting and just plain fun. Consider these very creative—and effective—techniques:
Sentence completion: Give yourself the beginning of a provocative sentence, and then complete it with as many different answers as you can. The more answers you provide, the deeper you’ll dig, and the greater the insight you may have. Or start with a sentence that asks you to prioritize an experience (see Ideas to Get You Started below). Arriving at one answer instead of several is itself a meaningful exercise.
Unsent letter: Write a letter to someone without intending to send it. Feel free to say whatever you want.
Dialogue: In order to work out an issue you might be having with someone, write out in dramatic script form an imaginary conversation. You might even consider it a rehearsal for an upcoming real one.
List: Challenge yourself to create meaningful lists (e.g., the three most important teachers in your life, five things every parent needs to do, your Top 10 movies or books, etc.).
Non-dominant hand: Write an entire entry using your opposite hand. Pay attention to what goes on in your mind as well as to the language you use.
Non-verbal options: Draw, doodle, color, or make a collage that expresses what you are going through.
Your Words as a Legacy
One of the great things about keeping a journal is that it becomes a trove of rich material from which to select and share reflections with others as a way for them to remember you. You might want to use specific journal entries or choose details to rework into another expressive writing form, such as a memoir or an ethical will. A memoir is a true story that can be as short as one or two pages, focusing on an important experience that conveys an insight you gained. An ethical will is an informal, non-legal document that describes life lessons you’ve learned, as well as your appreciation for loved ones and your wishes for them. Also known as a legacy letter, it can be a powerful gift to hand down now or after you pass.
If you’d like a surprisingly creative way to explore the many facets of your life, consider expressive writing. It can be the “write stuff” that helps you continue to grow in the days—and years—to come.
Ideas to Get You Started
Whether you’re journaling, writing a memoir, or creating an ethical will, here are a dozen prompts to inspire you:
The most wonderful moment of my life was when ___________.
The worst moment of my life was when _____________.
A time of big change for me was when _____________.
My earliest memory is ____________.
The most difficult thing I ever had to do was _____________.
I was honored or recognized for something I did when ______________.
I was proudest of myself when _____________.
I experienced great love/friendship when ________________.
A time I gave care and support was when _____________.
A time I received care and support was when _____________.
A surprising moment of my life was when _____________.
A time I wish I could live over in a different way was when _____________.
Jeanette Leardi is a Portland-based social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator who has a passion for older adult empowerment. She gives popular presentations and workshops in journaling, memoir writing, ethical will creation, brain fitness, creativity, ageism, intergenerational communication, and caregiver support to people of all ages. Learn more about her work at jeanetteleardi.com.