Feeling all write
Writing is a great way to clear your mind, especially before bed.
My first job as a doctor was at a small country hospital. I worked my first 14-hour shift there, sutured my first laceration and certified my first death. Every night, after I peeled off my work clothes and emerged from a scorching shower, I'd collapse in front of the TV desperate for some downtime. Needless to say, the more pressure I put on myself to relax, the less relaxed I felt.
One night, while sending an email to a friend, I became utterly absorbed in the process. As I was typing away I forgot about the stresses of my day and the knots in my shoulders. By the time I turned off the computer I felt as relaxed as if I'd had a leisurely soak in the bath and a glass of red.
According to psychologist Damien Adler of Mind Life Clinic in Victoria, what happened to me wasn't surprising; I'd simply stumbled across the therapeutic benefits of writing. And while we're quick to pounce on the potential negatives of getting super-comfy in front of a screen (obesity, I'm talking to you), writing can actually improve your health.
Firstly, it can help us clarify our thoughts. "Often our thoughts swim around our head in a jumbled-up sort of way," Adler explains. When putting them on paper we need to organise them. In the process, he says, you often discover your true feelings. "It basically forces you to think in a clearer way."
Writing can also clear your mind, especially before bed. "The most common problem people have with sleep is having a busy brain," explains Adler. Interestingly, he says, this is actually our brain's way of trying to look after ourselves by aiming to remember everything. But we don't want to remember everything at night. We want our brains to shut up so we can sleep. The solution, he says, is to outsource your brain's job, by writing down your thoughts. "So the brain says, 'I know that information is stored over there, so I don't need to store that in my head.'" Which means your brain can relax.
If you're more worried about your waistline than the bags under your eyes, your pen may still hold the key. A recent study by Stanford University in the US and Renison University College in Canada found writing about things you value can help you lose weight.
Researchers enlisted 45 women and split them into two groups. Both groups were asked to write for 15 minutes a day. While one group was instructed to write about things they valued - such as music and friendships - the others were told to write about things that didn't matter to them. Those who wrote about stuff they deemed important lost weight, while the others gained weight. The study's authors postulated that this was because writing about key values made participants happier. And we all know the better you feel, the less likely you are to turn to food for comfort.
Other new research, published by the American Psychological Association in its online journal Psychological Services, supports the theory that writing can make you feel good. The study followed 161 Israeli teenagers with social anxiety. The students were assigned to either blog, write in a diary, or not write at all. At the end of the study, those who blogged displayed better self-esteem than those who didn't write. They also fared better emotionally than those who wrote in a journal. According to Adler, this is because blogging has the added bonus of making you "feel heard".
But let's face it. The prospect of filling a blank piece of paper with words is daunting. What if you can't think of anything to write? The good news is you don't have to know what you want to say to get started, you simply have to start. GP and author Dr Leah Kaminsky advises writing continuously for five minutes, an exercise she refers to as "automatic writing". "Even if it's, 'That doctor who told me to write in a journal is a real weirdo, what the hell does she want from me?', write that down," she says. Adler says this works because, just as muscles need to warm up before exercise, your brain also needs time to warm up. The goal is to get to that elusive, meditative place known as "the zone", where you're so involved in what you're doing, the outside world doesn't exist.
I don't need fancy paper or pens to get into my writing zone. Words flow just as easily for me if I'm typing on my computer or writing on scraps of paper in my barely legible scrawl, but I prefer to use a computer simply because if I hate what I've written, I just delete it.
I don't always sit down knowing what I'm going to write, either. Some days a short story pops into my head that simply must be explored. Other days, funny vignettes about parenting spew forth. When I backpacked for a year with my husband, I wrote daily in cheap notebooks. Though crumpled and torn, they ended up being my favourite souvenir. What I've realised is, it doesn't matter what I'm writing about. The act itself is my therapy.