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For some people, writing can feel like a chore. Sitting down in front of a computer or a piece of paper when you don’t “have” to can sometimes feel like a waste of time that could be better spent doing other things. There are all sorts of benefits to writing, though. For example, one recent study showed that mothers of premature babies who practiced expressive writing for 15 minutes a day for three straight days had fewer depressive symptoms than a control group (Horsch et al., 2016).
Whether you write on a computer or handwrite on a piece of paper, and whether you’re journaling about your day, writing poetry about your trauma, or writing down your fears, it is important for all of us to just write and spend some time with our thoughts.
Here are the four best TED Talks to drive that point home, from Lakshmi Pratury, Sue Reynolds, Rachel McKibbens, and Tim Ferriss. Each talk is under 20 minutes, so no matter how little time you have in your day, at least one of these can fit into your schedule.
Lakshmi Pratury: The lost art of letter writing
Entrepreneur, speaker, and author Lakshmi Pratury starts this short talk by speaking about her dead father. While her father was dying, he wrote letter after letter to her. He also filled a notebook with thoughts about her, including her strengths and weaknesses, as well as other thoughts. Pratury uses her father’s death to talk about the “legacy” left by dead people, and how this legacy can be strengthened by things you can physically touch (as opposed to just emails). Inspired by her father, she declares that she will leave her son a notebook of his own, filled with similar thoughts.
Pratury’s main point is about the power of putting pen to paper and taking time to handwrite instead of typing everything. While acknowledging that it’s fine to write some things digitally, she urges the audience to take time to handwrite a letter to someone they care about. This talk is for the people who recognize the importance of handwriting.
Sue Reynolds: Writing Our Way Out of Trouble
In this talk at TEDxStouffville, Sue Reynolds talks about the importance of “therapeutic writing”. Reynolds leads therapeutic writing programs with all sorts of people but focuses on her experiences with women in jail during the talk. She claims that the “criminalized women” she dealt with in jail found writing to be extremely therapeutic, as through writing they could experience an emotional release that they could not otherwise achieve in jail.
She also explains how each woman’s writing served as an “ambassador” for her, helping people empathize and sympathize with an inmate that they otherwise would never have known beneath the surface. Reynolds goes on to say that her program for writing for an emotional release like this has been helpful for people from all walks of life, not just the women she worked with in jail, and she urges the audience to start a therapeutic writing practice of their own. Finally, she claims that 25 years of research shows that stressors can lead to illness, but that writing about these stressors can help reduce stress, leading to less illness.
Recent research continues to back up her claims, as one study showed that caregivers for people with cancer could significantly reduce their levels of stress, depression, and emotional burden by writing about their stressors (Harvey-Knowles et al., 2017).
Rachel McKibbens: Poetry as Therapy
Content warning: suicidal thoughts
In this powerful spoken word talk at TEDxFlourCity, poet Rachel McKibbens starts by talking about her own trauma as someone with both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar disorder, and how she never knew how to confront that trauma until she read a poem about suicidal thoughts.
McKibbens then talks about her experiences teaching creative writing at a high school contained in a mental health facility, where she taught her students how to confront their own trauma through poetry. She describes how the students went from not knowing how to write poetry to writing poetry in their own time outside of class. Most importantly, McKibbens says, her students started sharing their poems aloud with their peers. She says that while writing poetry is a powerful way to confront trauma, performing poetry in a safe space can be an even more effective way to “renounce shame” and deal with trauma. In fact, McKibbens’s talk itself is one of the poems through which she has dealt with her own trauma and experiences.
This talk shows that while writing down one’s experiences and emotions can be powerful, sharing them aloud can be crucial too. Recent research indicates something similar, as one study found that “individual differences in the ability to express and suppress both positive and negative emotions are also associated with indices of physical health” (Tuck et al., 2017). Writing and performing poetry would be one way to help people express and regulate their emotions, which can lead to positive health outcomes.
Tim Ferriss: Why you should define your fears instead of your goals
Content warning: suicidal thoughts
Finally, in this talk, entrepreneur, speaker, and author Tim Ferriss begins by showing a smiling picture of him as a senior in college, then reveals that a week after that picture was taken he had decided to commit suicide. After changing his mind, Ferriss (who lives with bipolar disorder) describes how he began looking for a “recipe for avoiding self-destruction”, and found inspiration in Stoicism and the writings of Seneca. Inspired by Seneca, he ultimately came up with a “fear-setting” (as opposed to goal-setting) exercise three pages long.
First, given a certain decision he had to make, he would write down his worst fears about the decision, figure out how he could avoid those fears from coming true, and figure out how he could repair the damage in his life if those fears were to come true. Then, he would consider the benefits of an attempt or a partial success. Finally, he would consider the “cost” of inaction. Ferriss uses this for all major decisions in his life and urges the audience too as well.
Ultimately, Ferriss’s main takeaway from the teachings of Stoicism is to separate what one can control from what one cannot control, and only focusing on what one can control. Putting pen to paper and doing his fear-setting exercise can help one keep that in mind. This is an extremely actionable TED Talk for anyone who ever feels paralyzed by fear.
A Take Home Message
At the end of the day, writing down our thoughts and experiences can be an invaluable resource for dealing with emotions. Whether one is paralyzed by fear, boredom, past trauma, or just indecision, getting one’s thoughts down on paper (electronic or otherwise) can be a way to reclaim some power. We hope that at least one of these talks inspired you to either start a writing practice or strengthen your current practice.
- Harvey-Knowles, J., Sanders, E., Ko, L., Manusov, V., Yi, J. (2017). The Impact of Written Emotional Disclosure on Cancer Caregivers’ Perceptions of Burden, Stress, and Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Health communication, 0(0), 1-9. doi: 10.1080/10410236.2017.1315677
- Horsch, A., Tolsa, J.F., Gilbert, L., du Chene, L.J., Muller-Nix, C., Graz, M.B. (2016). Improving Maternal Mental Health Following Preterm Birth Using an Expressive Writing Intervention: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 47(5), 780-791. doi:10.1007/s10578-015-0611-6
- Tuck, N.L., Adams, K.S., Consedine, N.S. (2017). Does the ability to express different emotions predict different indices of physical health? A skill-based study of physical symptoms and heart rate variability. British Journal of Healthy Psychology, 22(3), 502-523. doi:10.1111/bjhp.12242