Research shows putting pen to paper cuts stress
By Zoe FitzGerald Carter
Taking care of a sick or elderly loved one can be emotionally gratifying but it can also be exhausting and stressful. This is especially true for those of us in the so-called “sandwich generation” who are taking care of children while simultaneously taking care of elderly parents. Working long hours, living far away from our parents, and worrying about their wellbeing also adds to our stress.
One excellent way to take care of ourselves during the times when we feel especially stretched thin is to put pen to paper. Researchers such as James W. Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, have shown that writing reduces both physical and mental stress. It accomplishes this by giving us a place to release our worries, to regain our sense of stability, and to feel heard and acknowledged.
Keeping a journal, even if it means writing only 10 minutes a day, can help us deal with feelings of frustration that can arise when we are taking care of sick or aging loved ones. It can also help to give us insight into ourselves. Even if you have never considered yourself a writer, you can benefit from spending a few minutes “letting go” on the page. This can mean writing down your thoughts and frustrations – as well as your hopes and dreams. But whether you are venting about how difficult it is to get your mother’s doctor on the phone, or describing the dream vacation you’d like to take with your girlfriends, “journaling” can provide a mini-break from your daily demands and give you some much-needed perspective on your life.
Just remember, the purpose is to release your thoughts freely onto the page. Don’t edit yourself or expend energy worrying about whether your writing is “good.” Journaling is about the process of writing -- of putting your thoughts into words -- not trying to write a novel. The payoff is feeling happier and more relaxed.
To get started, buy yourself a notebook or journal that catches your eye and find a favorite pen. If you prefer to write on a computer that is fine although many people find that it is easier to access a more creative, personal mindset away from electronics. Then, find a quite place to write where you won’t be disturbed. Some people like to write first thing in the morning, others last thing at night. But whether you are writing in your bedroom, at the local Starbucks, or parked in your car on your lunch break, the important thing is that you find a few minutes everyday to write.
It is helpful to spend a minute or two relaxing before you begin. Close your eyes and take a few long breaths. Imagine that every time you exhale, you are letting go of your stress and frustration. Every time you inhale, imagine that you are flooding your body with calming, peaceful energy.
Once you feel relaxed, it is time to write! Don’t waste your energy thinking about what you should write, just do it. If you are happy or excited about something, describe it. If you are upset or angry, describe that. Caretaking can bring up conflicting feelings of love and resentment and that’s okay. Don’t let guilt about these difficult emotions stop you. This is your private space to speak your truth. If you need a prompt, try answering some open-ended questions. “What I am most worried about is….” “What I miss most these days is…” “In five years, I see myself as…”
Getting into the habit of taking time out of your day to communicate deeply with yourself and to write it down may take awhile. But if you stick with it, not only will it help to create a sense of space and calm in the midst of the overwhelming demands of daily life, it will make you better able to meet those demands. You may even find that you are more patient and able to listen as you go about your caretaking duties. And who knows, you just may discover that you have a novel or book of essays inside of you after all.
About the Author: Zoe FitzGerald Carter is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and has written for numerous publications including The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Salon and Vogue. Imperfect Endings is her first memoir and it’s available in paperback March 2011. It was excerpted in O magazine, was chosen as a finalist for the National MS Society's Books for a Better Life Awards in the "Inspirational Memoir" category, and is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer's pick. Zoe lives in Northern California with her husband and two daughters and is currently at work on a novel. Learn more at http://imperfectendings.com.