We probably communicate through written language every day, but when is the last time you put pen to paper and really wrote something? And no, I’m not talking about emails or correspondence or tweets or facebook posts or the weekly shopping or to do list. Okay, some people keep a regular journal, but if it’s been a while since you got creative on the page, it might be time to kick-start your practice because writing and creativity have been linked to a number of benefits for both body and mind.
Write It Down
If you’re always glued to your computer screen or smart-phone, then take some time out and step away from the keyboard, because although typing has become our main way of putting our thoughts down in print, using a pen or pencil has a number of well-documented benefits.
Writing by hand has been linked to improved creativity, critical thinking and problem solving and handwriting improves fine motor skills and cognitive abilities. Although typing may seem quicker, handwriting gives us time to pause, reflect and consider our choice of words, and because of the mental effort involved, studies show that writing by hand also helps to imprint memories and improve learning better than typing. Writing by hand is also a sensual, pleasurable activity. Choose a favourite pen, write in coloured ink in a beautiful hard-back notebook and enjoy every minute. Best of all, pens, pencils and notebooks last a long time without batteries and can go anywhere with you.
Tip: keep a notebook and pen by your bed and spend 5 minutes writing down the first things that come into your head on waking. Don’t self-censor, just let it flow. Try it for a week and see how it feels.
The Yoga of Writing
We can probably accept that writing down your thoughts or feelings after a traumatic incident can contribute to your emotional recovery, but would you have thought that writing might also help physical wounds to heal faster too?
A study in New Zealand in 2013 asked one group to keep a journal about their innermost thoughts and feelings. The other group was asked to write about anything except their feelings. After a time lag of two weeks they all had skin biopsies taken leaving a small wound on the arm and photographs over the next 21 days recorded their healing. After just 11 days, 76 percent of the group that did expressive writing had fully healed as compared with 42 percent of the control group. “We think writing about distressing events helped participants make sense of the events and reduce distress,” says Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Long-term anxiety or emotional distress can increase the level of the body’s stress hormone Cortisol, impeding the proper functioning of the immune system. Finding ways to express your feelings can reduce Cortisol and contribute to both mental and physical wellbeing.
Writing is also a fantastic way to help to counter the daily onslaught of negative messages we’re faced with more than at any time in human history. From social media to TV to print magazines and newspapers, we’re bombarded with an unhelpful mixture of idealized body images, celebrity gossip and bad news. Any wonder then that we’re often left feeling miserable, powerless and inadequate? Writing can be a great way to help us regain emotional equilibrium, to reflect upon what we are grateful for rather than moan about what we’re unhappy about.
Tip: in that notebook you keep by your bed, begin the day by listing something you’re grateful for in your life, something you appreciate about a significant other, something you’d like more of in life and something you’d like to be better at. If you’re someone who wakes up feeling anxious, this can be a great way to get you focusing on the positive. Think of it like a short daily yoga or relaxation practice. Try it for a week and see how it feels.
An Active Mind
If you want to keep your mind alert and your imagination active, creative writing is a great workout for the grey cells. You just have to consider the different areas of the brain that are involved when you’re penning a story, poem or an episode from your own life.
As well as activating the language and motor centres of the brain, you’ll also be delving into you own memories, regardless of the form your writing is taking. Some of these will be sensory memories, as you try to recall, for example, the scent of tarmac after rain, or the sound of the band that played the night of that memorable date, or the colour of the sky when it was heavy with snow that winter. Maybe you’ll recall faces, snippets of conversation and locations. Next, you’ll be consulting your inner dictionary and thesaurus, trying to find just the right words to get that memory across. Imagine the work your brain is doing if you’re penning a short story, writing a family history or even tackling a novel.
Just as walking is said to be one of the best all-round exercises for you body, writing might just hold the same status as one of the best all-round workouts for your mind.
Tip: using your bedside notebook, write non-stop for 5 minutes starting with the sentence: My adventure began… Then write non-stop for 5 minutes starting with My adventure continued… Finally, write non-stop for 5 minutes starting with the sentence: My adventure ended… Don’t self-censor, over-think or stop and read what you’ve written – just keep going. Try this every day for a week. When you get to the end of the week, read what you’ve written. You may be surprised by the directions your imagination and creativity have led you. Are there any ideas you might develop into something longer?
So, whether you’re keeping a journal, writing for pleasure or thinking about becoming a serious wordsmith, a few simple daily exercises will not only ignite your creativity and awaken your imagination, they might also have a really positive effect on your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.