Why storytelling is good for you: 20 ways writing makes us healthier

Writing has always been a safe space for me; a place to really be myself and discover who I am; a place to go when my family were busy arguing over my sister’s life decisions or when my friends didn’t seem to really get me. I’m actually an extravert – but I did go through a very shy period when I was younger. Writing, whether in my diary or a notebook, or even at school, was always somewhere I could be myself. Some of the most happy and connected times I’ve had, have been when writing – because it is good for our wellbeing. Over the years, formal education and working at our jobs seems to monopolise our writing time and we forget to write just for ourselves.

Sad!

But listen up! Writing has been found to have psychological and health benefits in terms of mood, stress, sleep health, depression and anxiety. Writing is good for all of us.

Tremendous!

Through writing you can:

1. Improve your cognitive functioning

Writing helps with cognition. By writing we can improve our analytical skills, clarity of thought, imagination, observation, creativity and ability to handle complex ideas.

2. Enjoy the psychological benefits of flow

Beyond this sharpening of our brain functions, writing practice can help with psychological wellbeing. A key feature seems to be the flow of writing. Writing has a similar effect on us as meditation because we can lose ourselves in the flow of it.

3. Clear your mind and sleep better

Writers can transfer the myriad thoughts churning through their heads (and keeping them awake at night), to the written page with the result that they no longer feel overwhelmed with all their thoughts. Writing helps us eliminate that ‘too many mental tabs open’ feeling, that many creative people suffer from, and actually get some sleep.

4. Reduces stress

Writing is a method for eliminating the stress of potentially losing (or confusing) the thoughts you want to keep hold of. Instead of carrying this stress around with you, jot your thoughts down in writing and gain the calm reassurance of having recorded your ideas for whenever you need them.

5. Be a better learner

Writing, particularly by hand, has been shown to help consolidate learning. If you really want to learn something, try expressing it in your own language and writing it out.

6. Connect with yourself

Expressive writing (which means writing out your thoughts and feelings, goals, desires, fears, reflections and anything you want) leads to self-knowledge and can improve our self-esteem.

7. Improve your communication skills for life

Aside from improving your creative writing techniques specifically, all writing practice improves our general communication skills, which helps with basically everything!

8. Write yourself organised

Writing keeps us organised and if you are able to carve out some dedicated daily writing time, you are already one step ahead in the productivity stakes.

9. Be more creative

Creative writing is a way for all of us to flex our creativity muscles which can then be used for any creative task – or just to live life more innovatively. Winning! Other forms of writing can help us write ourselves out of writer’s block. If you do a lot of writing, then you cannot fail to become better at writing in the process.

10. Give yourself a reality check

Sometimes we have thoughts going round in our heads but when we say or write them ‘out loud’ we can hear how silly they are. Negative thought patterns and catastrophising may loosen their hold over us if we simply write them down. The process of writing it out can be a reality check for us, as can reading it back at a later date. By putting our thoughts down in writing we create a little distance that can make all the difference to gaining control over wayward thinking and debilitating thoughts.

11. Stay focused

Writing about our future dreams and goals can keep us focussed and help us to achieve the things we want, and gratitude writing or reviewing our achievements can keep us positive, motivated and powerful. Are you tired of winning yet?

12. Document what’s going on

Writing literally records memories, details and events for the future – which can be useful, insightful or entertaining for us to read back at a later date.

13. Have fun

Writing can also be fun. To enjoy writing, just get started. Frequent writing leads to enjoying writing which leads to the ability to have fun whenever you feel like it. Not forgetting that writing can be an outlet for humour specifically, if that’s your schtick. Use writing to make yourself laugh, amuse your friends, create a little more joy in the world.

14. Preserve your attention span

Given that modern technology, second-screening and social media are shortening our attention spans, writing can be a useful way to resist it. As writing requires concentration, it can be a way to preserve and extend our ability to concentrate and pay attention to prolonged tasks.

15. Make the most of your introvert powers

Writing is a gift for introverts who draw their energy from being alone. To write is to have some quality alone time. Whilst we can all benefit from that, introverts will become energised by it too. Introverts also tend to be good observers, listeners, watchers, and reflecters – all of which aligns with the act of writing. Getting clear on what we want to express, through writing, can also help with articulating those thoughts in front of people, and in any case, writing means that introverts can get their ideas across without ever making eye contact.

16. Journal your way to wellbeing

Journaling, or any way of writing about our lives (such as zinemaking and blogging), can keep us mentally healthy in different ways. Through journaling we can indulge in some expressive writing, gain some self-knowledge, work out what it is we think and want, stay focused on our goals, prove to ourselves that we are living worthwhile lives and record memories and details before they are lost. Through journaling we can create a record of something particular for future reference –enabling us to look back on our lives, our achievements, our thoughts, review progress and stay motivated towards a goal. If you journal with something specific in mind, you will also be focusing your attention and subtly altering your behaviours and the way you live your life in respect of it. Journal wisely, my friends!

17. Remember that we are all writers

In many cases, we may have forgotten about writing, or put it away since school. Perhaps this is because we are told that once adulthood arrives we must only do those things that we are very good at, that can make us money and have a productive purpose, things we can call a career? But with so many health and wellbeing benefits to be had, we should resist all this nonsense and just write. Write like the wind, people!

18. Use writing as therapy

Therapists and counsellors understand how important and instrumental writing can be and employ a variety of writing therapies with their clients. These methods include free writing, timed writing, poetry making, writing a letter to yourself or to others, writing a dialogue between two agreed positions, keeping journals on a particular topic, writing in response to photographs, completing sentence stems and list writing (e.g. 100 reasons to get up in the morning).

19. Help others by sharing your life stories

Then there are all sorts of ways that sharing your life stories can benefit other people by helping them to see that, whatever they are going through, they are not alone. Through shared stories, people can find acceptance and understanding as well as some actual advice. There are now a plethora of websites devoted to sharing true life personal stories about coming out, life as a woman, being a transgender person, dealing with cancer, losing a child, men talking about mental health… experiences that many people have previously gone through whilst feeling alone and suffering because of it. Story sharing is a powerful way to help other people who are going through something similar to you. Stories can make a real difference to people’s lives. Yeah, plethora, you heard me.

 20. Get your self-expression and identity-making on

Good things happen when people share their self expression and personal stories. The storytellers benefit from feeling known and knowing that they matter and by putting themselves ‘out there’ can also find their tribes.

Let’s have ourselves a case study!

Zinesters gonna zine!

Zines provide an interesting example of writing as personal expression. Zines are essentially self-publications in which the creators use words and pictures to say whatever they want to say. They are analogue objects, often made out of paper, but could equally be made out of found objects and take any form. In many ways, zines defy definition but their essence is that of creative self-expression.

As Stephen Duncombe explains “Alienated from mainstream political institutions, and wary of any constraint on their individuality, [zinesters]… search for a more “authentic” formula. The only thing that stands this test of authenticity is a highly personal act of personal expression: making a zine… creating an authentic medium of communication, expressing the thoughts and feelings of an authentic individual.” (Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, p.41)

As expressions of writing, art, illustration, collage, found art, curation and illustration, zines are free from subject constraints, commercial purpose, circulation statistics, modulation and regulation (apart from the law of the land). Zinesters may be confessing their deepest thoughts, secrets or everyday observations or they might be creating a fake persona. Either way, zinemaking is an act of personal expression and the construction of identity.

Zinesters “are not trying to resurrect some sort of pristine identity that only exists outside the web of social construction. In fact, through their zines, they are engaged in the opposite: manufacturing themselves. No one is born a punk rocker or science fiction fan. Individuals form these identities for themselves out of the experiences and values of the subcultures of which they are a part… Zine writers use their zines as a means to assemble the different bits and pieces of their lives and interests into a formula that they believe represents who they really are.” (Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, p.42).

Part of this identity-making is the identity as someone who makes zines. Through the activities of making, distributing, selling, swapping, collecting, reading, zine fairs and workshops, zinesters are participating in a community.

Carrie Brownstein wrote about zine culture in her autobiography:

“Everyone seemed to have their own version of riot grrrl and their interpretation of punk rock feminism. These created a shorthand. It was reassuring to come across what felt like a network of people finding their voices for the first time. Those individual expressions formed a collective force, one that may have been lacking in refinement but was deeply sincere. That lack of composure made it even more unapologetic, and even if that gumption was compensatory, I think it’s what scared people so much. In those years I was in awe of the bravery I saw around me. I never quite felt brave myself then, but I watched a lot of fearless things happen……. I think the music I both played and listened to, along with the unmasked confessional writing in the fanzines, really created a vocabulary for me. Sometimes the works were smart or pithy, profound, poetic, often they were really messy, but they formed a boundary and a foundation for a lot of girls who had been undone by invisibility, including myself. Girls wrote and sang about sexism and sexual assault, about shitty bosses and boyfriends, about fucking and wanting to fuck. They called out friends and relatives and bands and businesses, corporations and governments for what they felt were injustices.” (Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl).

We all need some form of self expression and creativity is good for our wellbeing. Creative expression, such as writing, art-making and personal storytelling, helps us to know ourselves, feel connected, live in the moment, feel known and find like-minded people.

Writing in general is good for all of us – and so is reading and listening to stories from other people. Even if you are not ready to start writing and sharing your personal stories, simply listening to some can improve your wellbeing. I know it has made me feel better. Following world news and global politics and constantly thinking about all the ways society should be improved is a recipe for depression. It certainly gets me down. But listening to a lot more true life storytelling (in the form of The Moth, autobiography, Desert Island Discs, storytelling podcasts… whatever I can lay my eyes and ears on) makes me feel happier, more motivated and a whole lot more connected than ‘The News’ ever could.

Let’s story-tell our way to health and happiness instead.

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