This mindfulness practice is a grounding technique that is helpful for anxiety because it allows us to be present. Being present with all that is around us, not just overwhelming feelings, thoughts, sensations, urges, or memories can allow us to continue on with our day, regardless of how long these hang around for.
I love writing (hello, this is a blog after all) and I’ve always found it to be helpful for me in my own life (and health) journeys (that and music). I came across some research on the mental and PHYSICAL health benefits of expressive writing, so I did a bit more digging and damn, we should all be doing more of it! And hopefully, this post will inspire you to do some. Hearing that there are mental health benefits is probably less shocking than that there are physical health benefits to expressive writing, so we’ll start there, but before we get into that, let’s quickly establish what expressive writing is. Expressive writing is simply writing about our deepest thoughts and feelings about an event or situation, without holding back. When people do this, it is often through journaling, and is often free-writing, without too much thinking about it. It can be done on the computer or by hand, really whatever you prefer. The leading pioneer in this research is Pennebaker (too many articles to site them all), but I’ll site some of the other research on the subject (which also references him) at the end of the post.
Okay, so the mental health benefits:
reduces symptoms of depression
reduces post-traumatic symptoms
improves focus and concentration – including in people with ADHD
improves working memroy
improves emotion regulation (which is our ability to control the quality, frequency, intensity and duration of our emotional responses to situations)
and it increases our self-awareness
If these aren’t good enough reasons to do some expressive writing, then maybe the physical health benefits will convince you:
decreases the number of doctor’s visits you’ll have
reduces the number of days spent in the hospital
reduces the overall number of hospitalizations – i.e., people with cystic fibrosis
reduces blood pressure
reduces chronic pain – i.e., cancer and chronic pain conditions
reduces the severity of inflammatory conditions – i.e., rheumatoid arthritis, lupus (SLE)
improves immune functioning – i.e., cancer, HIV
improves lung functioning – asthma
improves liver functioning
improves and speeds up post-operative recovery
improves overall physical well-being
And then, if that’s still not enough for you, there are some other general benefits:
reduced number of “sick” days from work plus faster return to work if you were layed off
increased GPA in university students
improved sporting performance in athletes
Okay, so how does this all work? I mean, I understand how it can improve some of the mental health problems we may experience, because we’re writing about our thoughts and feelings. But how does it improve our physical health? Well, actually the two are related. Remember that stress has a HUGE impact on our physical health, and the mind and body are connecting, meaning that anxiety and depression can also feed into (and trauma can cause) physical health problems. The processes of expressive writing are as follows:
it allows for cognitive processing and restructuring of painful events and situations – cognitive restructuring changes how we perceive emotional stressors (both internal and external)
it allows for repeated exposure – which is controlled re-experiencing of events and situations so that they have less influence over our minds and behaviours
Improving our bodies, improves our minds and vice versa. Here’s the podcast episode on it.
How do we engage in expressive writing? According to the experts we need to write about our deepest thoughts and feelings, without holding back, about situations or events or really anything relevant to us at this moment that are painful. This could be anything from having cancer, to spending time in the hospital to going through a traumatic event. When we sit down to write, it should be for 15-20 minutes at time, without stopping, and be done on 4 consecutive days. Just doing that is enough to lead to all the benefits I listed earlier. It’s possible that more consistent writing could have more improvements, but I honestly didn’t find much on that. So, I’m curious, who’s going to try out some of this expressive writing to see if it helps?
I want to remind everyone that in addition to this blog, if you’re looking for more information to improve your health, I have a podcast: Chronically Living and how to make the most of it, which is available on Apple, Spotify and everywhere else you get podcasts, including this web link. I also have a YouTube channel for those of you looking to incorporate more mindfulness as it has a number of benefits for your physical and mental health as well: Kelsey L Harris Meditations. Until next week, keep making the most of it!
Baikie, K.A., & Wilhelm, . (2018). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. https://doi.org/10.1192/apt.11.5.338 Lepore, S-J., Greenberg, M.A., Bruno, A., Smyth, J.M. (2002). Expressive writing and health: Self-regulation of emotion-related experience, physiology and behaviour. In S.J. Lepore & J.M. Smyth (Eds), The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (p. 99-117). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10451-005 Stanton, A.L., Danoff-burg, S., & Huggins, M.E. (2002). The first year after breast cancer diagnosis: Hope and coping strategies as predictors of adjustment. Psycho-Oncology, 11(2), 93-102. https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.574
This week we’re baking up a storm with some very healthy muffins. These are great as a part of breakfast or on the go as a snack. They are chock full of fruits and vegetables. I personally use very little sugar, but you can adjust depending on your needs. For more information on healthy eating, I suggest listening to this podcast episode with Dr. Steph on the essentials of health, one of which is… you guessed it… nutrition and eating healthy!
This week I thought we’d examine the Greek word/philosophy of sophrosyne and how it applies to living with a chronic illness. The word was first introduced during a daily post on my favourite mindfulness app. I did some subsequent research and really felt it aligned well with many of my personal beliefs and values, as well as research I’ve read in other areas concerning both physical and mental health. So, I’m bringing this concept to all of you, because I think we can all learn from it and apply it to our lives in meaningful ways.
Let’s start with the meaning of the work. Sophrosyne was a Greek goddess of discretion, temperance, and moderation. Many people really hone in on the moderation part of this, and it’s sometimes considered “mindful moderation” when talked about currently. In Greek times, it also meant “excellence of character and soundness of mind” which is what created a “well-balanced” person. Moving forward in time, there are ties to Catholicism, in which moderation is considered the final of the cardinal virtues. Jumping ahead again, Nietzche considered moderation or self-control a virtue which could be extended to self-knowledge. It is the perfect union of self-knowledge and self-restraint, thus the moderation bit. And now, as my parents have always said “moderation rules the nation,” where they referring to sophrosyne? It would appear so.
Why is this important, or rather, how can it help Spoonies and Chronic Illness Warriors? Well, lots of ways actually. Moderation generally requires us to be mindful of what we’re doing. We can moderate our food intake, for example, if we pay attention to how many chips we just ate, or with drinking as in how many beers we just drank. For chronic illness, this type of mindful moderation helps with self-care (which if you’re a premium content subscriber you know has benefits for physical well-being, emotional well-being, intellectual well-being, social well-being, spiritual well-being, and even work well-being). It also can help with medication management (because we know if we took our medication/properly), with emotional regulation (how we deal with our emotions so they are effective), and can decrease stress (we’re not putting ourselves into stressful situations and can recognize when we are in them, giving us the opportunity to turn away). On top of this, the mindfulness piece has a number of benefits for mental and physical health, many of which I’ve blogged about – but you can also listen to on this podcast episode.
So, how can we practice sophrosyne in our lives? Moderation isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially if it’s not something we’re used to. Here are three ways:
Practice regular mindfulness – this could be formal meditation, mindful eating, mindful walking, or really doing anything while being fully present in the moment.
Relaxation – using techniques to help keep us calm make it easier to engage in mindful moderation. Again, formal meditation works, as does breathing and progressive muscle relaxation exercise, journaling (I like the gratitude journal personally), or going to therapy to talk about our problems.
Emotional Regulation – by learning and practicing emotional regulation skills we become less likely to be impulsive, and therefore, more likely to be able to engage in moderation.
I started a meditation and mindfulness channel on YouTube that currently has meditations, relaxation exercises, and grounding techniques. I will be adding more informal practices in the coming weeks. You can check out the channel here. Like and subscribe so I can keep bringing more content to it.
I’m going to continue to try my best to live the ideal of sophrosyne because I can see the benefits it can have and does have on my life, including my chronic illness and my mental health. I hope it can do the same for you, as you keep making the most of it!
Walking is a great way to get some exercise in, and it can be adjusted to different fitness and ability levels. If you really want to take it up a notch, trying doing some mindful walking. It will give you the benefits of exercise and mindfulness all rolled into one. Here’s a podcast episode on exercise for you to check out, and here’s one on mindfulness. Keep making the most of it everyone!
Today I want to talk about some of the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, because, well, I find it quite interesting. Dr. Mate is an addictions specialist, who has also worked as a family physician and in palliative care. Much of his work and research has been on that body-mind connection between mental health and chronic illness and substance use. He has a lot to say about stress, trauma, and coping and their relationship to chronic illnesses ranging from autoimmune diseases to neurological conditions to skin disorders to cancer. While I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with everything he says, a lot of it does make sense.
The work of Dr. Mate I had heard of before but never looked much into. At my practicum, the other student at my site brought it up. She was interested in his work as someone who wants to work with people who use substances, and she thought I might also be interested as someone who is specializing in working with people with chronic illness (which is currently 40% of my case load!). She was correct that this would be interesting and helpful for my work as a psychotherapist. So let’s talk about some of this work. Dr. Mate asserts that there is a “pathway from stressful emotions, often unconscious, to physical disease” or to break it down slightly differently, “emotional stress if a major cause of physical illness.” Again, he’s talking about a wide range of illnesses, including autoimmune diseases and cancer. There are two parts of this that I found interesting doing some research (and there’s a lot more I want to do yet – there’s a whole book of his that’s on my to read list).
The first part is emotions themselves. For instance, Dr. Mate connects repressed anger to the development of autoimmune diseases. Basically, if you’re not letting your anger out (in an appropriate way of course) and instead, you’re holding it in, it bursts out, not in a fit of rage, but in a chronic illness such as RA or lupus and so on. Tied into this is emotional repression in general. So if you’re disregarding your emotions, whatever they may be, and holding them in, this can lead to illness as well. On his website Dr. Mate gives the example of Lou Gehrig and ALS (and according to Mate, every patient he has seen with ALS), who often disregarded both emotional and physical pain he was in throughout his life.
The second part is trauma and trauma response. It is pretty well documented that people who endure trauma, especially early in life, will make adaptive changes either physically or psychologically, in order to survive. Childhood abuse is one often cited with this. It is also well documented that childhood trauma has a huge impact on adult physical and mental health. Dr. Mate states that trauma in another cause of the range of chronic conditions I’ve mentioned.
So wait, does this mean that every person with pretty much any chronic conditions has either a history of trauma and/or a history of emotional repression? Not necessarily. I watched an interview with Dr. Mate, where the interviewer asked just that (because it’s a rather big claim). The response was that of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it does apply to a large portion of this population. Interesting. So my thoughts on it are this: I have an autoimmune disease. I did not have any kind of significant childhood trauma (I have maybe what I’d call minor trauma) and I have usually been good at expressing my emotions (though I have gone through periods where I’ve been less likely to, those are usually short-lived). Basically, I’m not sure I fall into this category. I also know many other Spoonies who would not fall into this category. That being said, especially through my work as a therapist, there are many people who this does make sense for.
My main takeaway from this is that to help heal from chronic illness (and I’m not saying cure), one really has to take care of their emotional health. See a therapist. If there’s trauma in your background, that likely needs to be worked through (also just in general for your mental health). If it’s emotional repression, then you need to start to learn to open up (part of my work as an acceptance and commitment therapist is to get people to allow their emotions to be there). The body and mind are connected so we need to treat them as such.
That’s all for this week. Until next week, keep making the most of it.
Getting present is so important because it allows us to not dwell on the past or future, or to only feel strong sensations (such as chronic pain). Instead it allows us to take in our whole experience. This is extremely beneficial for people with chronic pain and illness, and it take A LOT of practice (for example it took me around 3 years to get good at this). This is one mindfulness practice that you can use.
If you’re interested in more mindfulness, I recently started a new YouTube channel called Kelsey L Harris Meditations, where you can find this and more meditations!
There is such a delicate balance between the body and mind and how they interact with each other. At the core, our mind… or more specifically our brain, controls everything from our thoughts and feelings to our pain levels to basic functions such as breathing. It sends the signals to all the body parts. Our bodies can also let our brains know when we’ve been injured for example. But what happens when there is too strong an influence of one over the other? This often happens in chronic pain, when the pain signals are amplified much more than they should be. Another common problem is the influence of our mental health on our chronic pain. For example, if you have higher anxiety or depression, you might notice that you have higher chronic pain as well. This is part of why I’m specializing in chronic illness as a psychotherapist. The balance is delicate and all parts of health need to be looked after in order for us all to live our best lives.
Let’s look at fibromyalgia as an example, because it is a fairly common chronic pain condition. According to medical research, depression and pain share receptors in the brain. So it’s common for people with fibromyalgia to develop depression (less common the other way around but still possible).Dr. Ananya Mandel (news-medical.net) So treating depression and chronic pain at the same time can be beneficial. A number of antidepressants have found to be in treating both. If you think you’re already on a lot of medication and don’t want to take anymore, then therapy for depression, may also impact chronic pain, especially if you’re clear with the therapist that you’re looking to treat both simultaneously. An even more interesting example is anxiety, which often feeds chronic pain, making it feel worse. Anxiety can increase how sensitive we are to pain, and therefore make the pain worse than it would be without anxiety. Dr. Ananya Mandel (news-medical.net) That being said, having pain can lead to anxiety, and so it is a vicious cycle. In this case, it might be more beneficial to treat the anxiety rather than the pain. As anxiety decreases, pain should decrease as well. Whether it’s pharmacological interventions, or psychotherapeutic ones (though for anxiety best results are always a combination of the two), if you have a lot of anxiety and a lot of chronic pain, it might be time to get a referral to a mental health professional!
Let’s quickly talk about stigma, because while it’s decreasing, I want to recognize that some people still struggle with it. You are not crazy if you seek out mental health help. You’re not abnormal. A lot of things people tell me are normal, or do make sense given their circumstances. Mental health help is not just for the severely ill, it’s for everyone, because everyone struggles. If it’s a family member that is playing into the stigmatization for you, get them to read this post, or heck the millions of other posts and articles out there on mental health and stigma, and who is seeking services for what. And if that doesn’t help, remember that you have to do what’s best for you, not for other people.
If you have more questions about the body-mind connection, I am going to be doing a podcast episode on it in the near future, so feel free to email or DM me (on Instagram) some questions and I’ll answer them on air! Until then, keep making the most of it!
This is yin yoga at it’s finest. Contacting the present moment, maybe lucking out with some relaxation but the purpose is to be present. Here’s the link to the 30 Day Yoga Challenge by Timothy Gordon (The Zen Social Worker). I highly recommend checking it out. Check out this podcast episode on mindfulness too. Let me know how this goes in the comments and keep on making the most of it!