Last week I read this article about the correlation between writing and stress/anxiety levels. It summarized a study in which students were given the opportunity to write for ten minutes before major tests. The students who were given the time to write about their concerns and anxieties, etc., ultimately had better test scores than the students who went into the exam cold. It was then noted that writing could, indeed, be quite therapeutic.
I figured that out on my own years ago.
One day back in college, I was listening to “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. There’s that line…”Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send.” I heard it, and it struck a chord with me. I was feeling stressed out, as I am known to be, and anxious and restless, as I am also known to be — the way I get when things are bothering me, but I can’t quite eliminate them for whatever reason. In that case, it was a whole bunch of things that I felt like I needed to say to people, but couldn’t, for whatever reason. The reason may have been that I wasn’t brave enough or they didn’t or wouldn’t care or didn’t want to hear it, but there were things I wanted to say, nonetheless.
So I wrote a letter. And then I wrote another one. Pretty soon I had an entire notebook full of letters that I had no intention of ever sending. This allowed me to blow off some steam when I felt like all I wanted to do was shake someone and say, “Hey, can we talk about this like adults? Do you think you could maybe just listen?” It served a double purpose, too. If I was ever presented with an opportunity to be able to say what was on my mind, I could articulate it a lot better because I’d already gotten it down on paper.
What was equally as therapeutic was when I ripped that notebook up and threw it into a fire, page by page. It was literally watching old problems go up in smoke. They were no longer problems, really, even if the smell of wood smoke lingered on my clothes and in my hair afterwards.
And last year, right around this time, when everything that already felt so unsturdy just seemed to cave in below me, I wrote. For about a month and a half at the beginning of last year, I had this horrible sense of anxiety, like someone was just about to pull the rug out from under my feet, and I never knew when it was going to happen or why. So I threw my focus into writing and made everything about that. By June, I had a complete first draft of a first novel.
I’ve continued to write with more regularity than I ever have before. I have writing goals and I’ve been doing side projects — blogging every day for a news/tech/marketing/PR website to build a writing portfolio, writing short stories to submit to writing competitions, not because I think I’ll win, but because it gives me something else to keep it fresh. Sometimes writing can start to feel like work, and that’s when I know I need a break. I want to always love and enjoy it. I think small breaks are essential to that kind of longevity.
Still, even with the writing I’ve been doing, I’ve been feeling really restless for the last week or so. There are some things that have been weighing on my mind, but during the day I keep myself busy enough to not over-think. I run errands. I write. I read. I spend time with my family and my friends. I assume it’s because I’m not actually getting to the heart of the matter that these things just come back to, for lack of a better phrase, bite me in the ass. And this always happens when I’m trying to fall asleep, regardless of how tired I am. My mind starts moving and I’m thinking about all of these things and I just can’t turn it off. As a result, I haven’t been getting much sleep and I’ve been cranky and irritable with people closest to me.
I didn’t fall asleep before 4 a.m. on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. On Monday night, I really couldn’t stop my brain, and I tossed and turned and remained awake until after 5 in the morning. I had to do something to get all of these thoughts and ideas and things I wanted to say out of my head.
I tried forcing myself to stay awake during the day even though I was so exhausted that I physically hurt. Certain I was going to sleep well, I’d go to bed, only to have my brain keep me awake by not shutting the hell up. It’s funny that I’m a relatively quiet person in real life, someone who enjoys silence, because the inside of my head never stops.
But as with anything, when something is right there in front of us, we tend to overlook it because we’re either so used to it being there or we’re taking it for granted or we’re on the search for something better and more complicated.
Last night I was positively exhausted from lying awake until 5 a.m. the night before and refusing to sleep in too late or take a nap during the day. Still, I couldn’t fall asleep and I was getting angry. Around 3 a.m. or so, I suddenly remembered those letters I’d written, never meaning to send. So I got out of bed and I sat down and I wrote. I free-wrote, to be specific, about anything that came into my head, with no regards to order or any of the niceties of writing. But I found myself reacting as though I were getting all of these things out of my system and constructively to the appropriate people (where applicable). Forty minutes later I got back into bed and promptly fell asleep, my head finally quieting at 4 a.m.
I slept deeply enough to dream. I also slept deeply enough to miss my phone ringing twice right next to my face, the house phone ringing, and the dogs barking their faces off at two ambulances with sirens turned up full blast that came and took my neighbor to the hospital — the neighbor who lives closest to my bedroom window. You must understand that I’m generally a really light sleeper. That kind of deep sleep almost never happens to me. When I woke up, I thought about how smart I was for remembering that old technique. I was happy to have my head clear.
And then the day wore on. By dinner time, I realized that my head was filling back up with stressors. I ignored it. I wrote. I wrote some other stuff. I wrote some third stuff. That was all well and good, and at midnight, I crawled into bed, exhausted and ready to quickly drift off.
Didn’t happen. There came that nagging feeling of anxiety again. After over an hour of arguing with myself in my head (yes, I realize how that sounds), I got out of bed … and very reluctantly. Wind chill is 8 degrees out there right now and my windows are very drafty. I went back to what I’d been writing last night, and I added more to it. And then I felt better.
Except now I’ve caught my second wind, so I figured, what the hell? I’m up. I might as well blog. It’s only 2 a.m. The night is young!
As I think about it, my success rate with therapeutic writing is pretty much on par with the study that I read last week. What do you care about my problems, right? Well, you probably don’t. You’ll note, however, that I haven’t actually listed them. I haven’t burdened you with them. I’ve just said there are some things that are causing me some stress and anxiety right now. Doesn’t everyone have those? Isn’t that called life? Some people just deal with those things better than others. In writing this, I only wished to offer you an interesting study and a good use for writing.
If I keep worrying tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, I’m just going to keep writing those letters until my neuroses return to more… normal levels.