The benefits of physical exercise on mental and physical health are well known, but what about creative exercise? Multiple studies have shown that putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) can help us be, in the words of Radiohead, fitter, happier, more productive…
One form of therapeutic writing is known as ‘expressive writing’ – that is, writing down our thoughts and feelings about our own lives. More specifically, studies suggest that writing about upsetting personal experiences can, believe it or not, make us feel more relaxed. Even more astonishingly, it can even make us physically healthier — one experiment on 46 healthy college students found that those who wrote for 15 minutes a day about traumatic life events they had experienced went to the doctor less often and took fewer painkillers. Other studies have suggested that keeping a diary and writing down thoughts and feelings daily can significantly reduce stress and anxiety, reduce symptoms in cancer patients and even help with marital satisfaction for soldiers returning from the battlefield.
Even if navel-gazing is not your thing, however, there’s still good reason to get writing. Growing evidence suggests that creative activities, such as writing poems and fiction, help us to feel more relaxed, happier and to improve our self-esteem. Creative writing courses have even been run by both county councils and by the NHS as a tool to improve mental health.
Exactly why writing fiction might help us feel better is unclear. One theory hinges on the concept of ‘flow’, which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as a highly focused mental state that allows us to forget external distractions and stress. Another is that writing fiction requires us to reflect and draw upon our own experiences, memories and feelings, leading to a similar effect as expressive writing. Or perhaps it is the gleeful abandon of surrendering to raw escapism. Or, conversely, the sense of security which comes from being able to create and control an imaginary environment. Or could it just be that making up stories is fun?
Whatever the reason, it really does seem that settling down with just your pen (keyboard) and your imagination might be one of the best ways to pass the darkening autumn evenings.