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Write Your Way Healthy

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A new study from the University of Arizona, Tucson showed that for people undergoing a divorce, a specific form of writing helped their bodies better respond to cardiovascular stress. Participants who did three narrative expressive writing exercises had a reduction in heart rate (a good thing) and an increase in heart rate variability, which measures beat-to-beat variations in heart rate (also a good thing). Here’s what struck me: the study only involved a total of 60 minutes of writing. Now, divorce is one of top stressors in life. So if an hour of narrative expressive writing can help people going through that, surely it can help with everyday stress, right? For this week’s Healthy Habits, let’s crib some of the study’s key concepts:

  1. Despite what our preconceived notions about journaling, pouring out your strongest, deepest feelings isn’t necessarily the most effective approach. Previous research in this same vein had shown that this actually increases distress, especially among those of us who are prone to rumination.
  2. What works better: Creating a narrative, cohesive story with structure, and crafting meaning from our emotions. This “allows people to process their feelings in a more adaptive way, which may in turn help improve their cardiovascular health,” wrote University of Arizona researcher, Kyle Bourassa. What’s the beginning of your divorce? The middle of the situation? And now you are releasing it... with the end.  
  3. As with other forms of expressive writing, during narrative expressive writing, resist the urge to edit yourself on matters such as punctuation and spelling, or stress over subject-object agreement. This writing isn’t for publication—it’s an exercise for you alone. Especially for people who aren’t comfortable writing, worrying about grammar can make things feel laborious, so just relax and write.

Here are a few prompts:

  • What is your place in your family?
  • How does your neighborhood define you?
  • What’s your favorite spot in your house?
  • What is your personal motto?
  • What are your survival strategies?
  • What could you not live without?

Next, see if you can create a story with a beginning, middle and end, based on one of those prompts.

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