Write Your Stress Away

A Theology professor shared a story with me, which I paraphrase: “I was a substitute one Sunday at a Lutheran church in a nearby town. My sermon dealt with themes developed by Paul Tillich, the Lutheran theologian who was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I never mentioned Tillich by name in the sermon. A couple of days later I received an email from a church member criticizing my sermon. He said my message reminded him of a book he had read by a ‘guy’ named Tillich, and that I distorted his philosophy and was unclear about Lutheran Church tenets. To say the least, I was offended and wanted to respond harshly, making it clear that I had read every word written by Tillich, did a doctoral dissertation on his writings, and was quite knowledgeable about Tillich. In anger, I sat down at my computer and crafted a reply that said in so many words, ‘Buzz off, buddy! You’re out of your league!’ I felt a little better when finished, but I knew that on so many levels and for so many reasons, I should never send such a reply soaked in arrogant condescension. So, I wrote another response, this one dripping with respect, gratitude, and diplomacy. I defended my sermon, and documented my defense, but I also praised the man for his interest and for taking the time to write. I saved both replies and thought about them for a couple of days. When I went back and re-read the email and my two replies, I could only chuckle at the nasty email I composed. Plus, I was able to see that the man had made a common mistake in interpreting Tillich, and I added some ‘gentle’ words to that effect in my polite reply, which I then sent to him. I think I learned a little something about humility.”

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the US, diligently kept a daily diary from 1779 (he was 12), right up to his death in 1848. The diary brought Adams not only personal satisfaction, but also reflections and analyses about his emotions, needs, frustrations, and insights. As an example, consider this entry quoted by biographer Fred Kaplan. Adams and his wife, Louisa, had just lost their infant daughter, who succumbed to dysentery after only 11 months of life. Adams noted the “keen and severe” pain they suffered upon her death. “She was precisely at the age when every gesture was a charm, every look delight; every imperfect but improving accent, at once rapture and promise. To all this we have been called to bid adieu, stung by the memory of what we already enjoyed.” These are the heavy words of sorrow, but they also convey gratitude for the beautiful time they enjoyed with this child. Adams’ words clearly show him taking the first tentative steps toward dealing with grief and taking something positive from their daughter’s brief life.

The power of writing. Joshua Smyth and his colleagues have done a series of studies looking at the effect of writing about personal traumas on the writer’s physical and psychological health. In Smyth’s general procedure, for a few minutes a day for several days, one group of participants is asked to write about some personal trauma or troublesome issue in their lives. A control group simply writes about their plans for the next day. After the writing period, participants receive both immune system and psychological evaluations. On both measures – physical health/immune system efficiency, and psychological strength in coping with life – the group that wrote about personal problems scored better than the group that merely wrote about the upcoming day.

Have you ever shared some problems with someone and had them say, “Maybe you should talk to a counselor about these concerns”? There it is – talk to someone. That can be good advice, but it overlooks an important party you might want to talk with – yourself! Psychologists believe that writing about personally upsetting issues helps you restructure your thinking. That is, as you write about these troublesome things, you’re actually dealing with the conflicts at some intellectual and cognitive level; you’re allowing yourself to see things in a new perspective while thinking things through. We see both of those processes at work in the two examples above, the Tillich professor and Quincy Adams.

Here we are in mid-2022. Media platforms are filled with reports from mental health professionals talking about more and more people coming to them with problems centering around depression and anxiety. I picture many of these victims, especially youngsters, alone at night, sitting in front of their device, and filling themselves with unproductive – even destructive – “conversations” with others on social media. I wonder what might happen if – on a regular basis – sufferers turned off their device, took out a pencil and paper, and began writing to themselves about what’s bothering them. The “rules” are simple: Be honest, confident, and non-critical; describe your feelings, don’t condemn them; consider your difficulties as problems requiring a solution with a positive purpose for the future, not as personal shortcomings to judge or attack; write with no restraints about what may be grammatically incorrect, poorly spelled, personally embarrassing, or “normal”; pledge to keep what is written between “me and myself.”

What insights might emerge? Your values? Elements of the purposeful life you seek for yourself? Compromises you might offer to others to resolve a conflict? Challenges to accept or reject? Questions to pursue with an objective counselor? Try the “writing therapy.” It may prove worthwhile.

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