Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Write Way Through Cancer

I've just discovered that I'm not quite as crazy as I thought.

Back at the end of June when my doctor uttered that terrible word ... cancer... the first thing I did when I got home was start this blog and write down how I felt.  It was almost a physical need to get it all out of my head and into black and white.  Then I knew I might get at some sleep that night.
A pretty crazy response to a cancer diagnosis?

Apparently not.  According to studies done by James Pennebaker, writing can help people deal with heartbreak,  tragedy and anxiety.  And cancer.  Therapists have been telling us for a while that talking about our troubles helps us cope but we all know that it can be difficult to find someone to talk to about cancer.  With all those hospital appointments, there's no way I'll find time to talk to a therapist.  I'd talk to my husband but, frankly, he has enough to be coping with.  It helps to talk to my friends but I don't want to spend every social occasion going on and on about my cancer.  Anyway, that can be a bit scary, right?  James Pennebaker says:

"The killer problem is when you talk to a friend or even a therapist, you’re putting yourself on the line. For it to work that other person has to be completely accepting, and the reality is we don’t tell our friends a lot of really deep and personal things because we think it might hurt the relationship. That’s the beauty of writing. You don’t have to worry about other people looking down on you or feeling nervous about putting yourself out there."

But tapping away at a computer keyboard is not quite the same as sharing a coffee with a friend.  Can it really have the same effect?  Yes, says James Pennebaker.

"Across multiple studies, people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than they felt before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals (Lepore 1997). Other studies found improvement in overall well-being and improved cognitive functioning (Barclay & Skarlicki 2009)."

According to his analysis, writing helps us sort out our thoughts and make sense of them.  We need a sense of being part of a story rather than simply being buffeted by the misfortunes of life.  Blogging was an addiction that I discovered when I was fortunate enough to live in Africa for a few years.  I started as a way to keep family in touch with how we were getting on, but soon I found that I was writing for my own benefit.  I loved the splendour, the beauty, the adventure of my life.  But that came with a good dose of squalor, difficulty, setbacks and struggle.  Soon after I started blogging, we were on holiday when our car broke down in the middle of no-where and we were left trying to figure out what the heck to do under a hot African sun with no RAC to call to our aid.  Instead of being upset about a holiday 'ruined', I found myself mentally planning my next blog post.  Instead of a being a disaster, it was a great story.

So perhaps that's why I instinctively turned straight to the comfort of the blog as soon as I was diagnosed.  Cancer - that's one heck of a story!

I like blogging because it's open to those who want to read it and I know that my posts have helped others which gives me a lovely, warm feeling.  But I'm ambivalent about going 'public' with the rawness of it all so I write this under a pseudonym and I haven't shared with friends or family.  According to James Pennebaker, you don't even have to go that far to gain the benefits of writing.  Just write twenty minutes a day for four days, he counsels, and plan to tear it all up afterwards. 

"Find a place you won’t get disturbed, and I want you to sit down and just begin writing about the thing that’s bothering you. Don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure or spelling. Just write. This is for you and for you alone. Plan to tear up what you’ve done when you finish. It’s not a letter to somebody. It’s not something for you to show someone to convince them that you are right. This is for you alone."

Try it.  Take all those cancerous feelings of anger, frustration, unfairness, fear and helplessness and put them down on a page.  Work through them and get them out of your head.  No-one will judge what you have written so write exactly how you feel.

Then tear it into a million little pieces.

Honestly.  It helps.

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