Did you know memoir writing is good for you? Whether you want to publish or not, the very act of writing about your experiences and working through your memories on the page carries long-term physical and mental health benefits. I’ve long been an avid diarist, and it’s such a daily routine for me now that I get a bit anxious when i lose the practise – usually if i’ve been out of my morning routine.
Read on for a smattering of the benefits of keeping a memoir journal, and how you can maximise these benefits with the right writing practise.
1: Writing makes you mindful
If mindfulness can simply be explained as paying focussed attention to one thing at a time, then by sitting down to focus on writing in our handwritten journal each day, we’re giving ourselves the gift of mindfulness.
See, you don’t have to meditate on a mantra or practise hours of yoga to be mindful. For people like me, with a monkey brain that’s always chattering and overthinking and analysing, this is good news. Writing is my meditation, and it carries the same benefits!
Why is mindfulness such a hot topic these days? Well pandemic or not, we live in the age of digital distraction, so it’s almost a holy sacred power to be able to focus on something without looking at a device or talking to someone or having to go and task switch in between.
Practising mindfulness helps us improve our concentration, which psychologists call ‘focussed attention.’ The good news is that focussed attention can be learnt and improved – so by journalling for just 15 minutes a day – and that is, without doing anything else during that time – studies on brain neuroplasticity show that we can increase our attention span.
2: Mindfulness improves ALL aspects of our health
Hundreds of studies into mindfulness show the benefits in treating depression, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, substance abuse, heart disease, eating disorders, and so many other mental and physical ailments. There are absolutely no bad effects to adding a dose of mindfulness to your day – and it’s proven to reduce anxiety.
But if, like me, you never felt like you could get mindful meditation right, journalling for mindfulness might be easier for you. For me, I need something to focus on – a task, a question, a reflection. These are what I pour into my journalling practise to make it mindful, and to ensure that the writing I do in my journals both elevates my mood and leaves me feeling empowered.
3: Memoir journaling reduces pain!
Of the hundreds of studies into the physical benefits to journalling, my absolute favourite was the hospital study which tasked one group of asthma and arthritis patients to write about stressful experiences, and the other to write about ‘neutral’ experiences. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and you can access a summary here.
Guess which patients had the biggest improvements to their long-term health? The ones who wrote about the most stressful experiences of their lives! This is such an interesting study when it comes to the power of memoir writing. Memoir is, in essence, a collection of memories – so it’s as though by writing our way through our memories we get to sift through them and put them out in a tangible form that we can actually grasp – rather than keeping them in the heady hazy (and somewhat sinister) catacombs of our unconscious mind.
Another study published in the March 2018 JAMA Psychiatry found that writing about specific memories was just as effective as traditional cognitive processing therapy in treating adults with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now I’m not saying that you don’t need therapy, too, but you could boost the effects by adding a memoir journaling practise!
A lot of the work you do in traditional therapy involves narrative questioning and some therapists get you to draw a timeline of the events that have made up your life. You do all of these things when you write a memoir under a certain framework (my 90 Day Memoir program uses The Hero’s Journey).
One of the studies I share in my Masterclass relates to the difference in health benefits between those who write without a narrative framework, and those who do. Those who used a narrative framework in order to write about their memories and experiences experienced far more health improvements.
There’s a certain power to becoming the narrator and the storyteller of our own lives, which is one of the reasons I absolutely love journalling in a certain way for long-term benefits. Other studies show that when we’re stressed, writing about how (and what) we’re feeling calms us down. It’s as though the effort of concentrating long enough on unravelling the story across the page is enough focussed attention to take us out of the story itself and put us firmly in the director’s chair.