Artwork by Chrissy Montelli
The human brain’s capacity for processing emotions is fascinating. The smallest stimuli can motivate neurochemicals to trigger heightened breathing, sweaty palms, or an increased heartbeat, igniting an emotional response like anger, fear, or excitement. But given the nature of humanity, how we handle those emotional responses in everyday life can be messy.
Psychology and psychotherapy have made great strides in research over the last few decades, particularly on the topic of personal narratives, and it isn’t hard to imagine why. Journaling and talking one’s feelings out with friends are common conduits for self-reflection and coming to terms with our experiences. Talk therapy, the talking cure, is among the most popular psychotherapies.
Life writing is a type of narrative writing that combines psychology and psychotherapy to process emotion, and its benefits are supported by recent psychological research. In fact, research suggests that life writing not only helps us understand our emotions and experiences, but can also alter our behavior by changing how we perceive our own narratives; in other words, life writing helps us shift our perspective to better recognize and overcome our personal obstacles, allowing us to change for the better. The Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University researches the psychological effect of personal narratives and storytelling; their studies have produced quantifiable results indicating that “the development of narrative identity plays a vital role in mental health.” Dr. Timothy D. Wilson, author of Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, told The New York Times that life writing “forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.” The American Psychological Association agrees: “if we want to change people’s behaviors, we need to try to get inside their heads and understand how they see the world—the stories and narratives they tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do. […] [I]t may be easier than we thought to get people to edit their stories in ways that lead to sustained changes in behavior.” In other words, rewriting our personal narratives allows us to cope, self-reflect, and change our perspective—and behavior—for the better.
Some research suggests that life writing can improve our immune system in addition to our emotional well-being. In the 1990s and early 2000s, various studies observed improvement in the health of patients afflicted with HIV/AIDS, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and trauma, as well as improved responses to the Hepatitis B vaccine. These studies concluded that “the key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret their experiences,” because “[v]enting emotions alone—whether through writing or talking—is not enough,” and that “people must use [writing] to better understand and learn from their emotions” in order for writing to produce positive health-related effects. One study, conducted by Dr. James W. Pennebaker, posits that even an individual’s choice of words can contribute to their mental and physical well-being: “those whose health improves most tend to use a higher proportion of negative emotion words than positive emotion words. […] That is, the construction of a coherent story together with the expression of negative emotions work together in therapeutic writing.”
Everyone wants to feel heard and seen, though many of us often feel that our story isn’t “worth” telling. But in addition to its therapeutic effects, sharing your personal narrative is a means of connecting with others as well as with yourself. At bioGraph, our clients’ moods and outlooks on life frequently improve with only a single interview—many report feeling immediately validated, mentally clearer, and realize they have more to say than they previously thought. As the interviews and anecdotes evolve into full-fledged memoirs, our process affords clients a continuous channel to open up, self-reflect, and free themselves in a way that can also make a difference to others who read their memoir. In this way, bioGraph hopes to create new opportunities and literature for the study of life writing’s therapeutic benefits.
Sharing your story is always, always worth it, and the science backs us up. The process is generally fun. Often the hardest part is deciding to begin.
What’s stopping you?