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Words and Meaning: The Power of Writing for Caregivers

Caregiving can be a challenging job. Whether you are a caregiver for a loved one, or it is your profession, it can at times be overwhelming when someone needs assistance with getting through daily tasks. Caregivers also have to be attuned to carefully watching their clients or family members for any signs of a serious medical emergency.

There are ways for caregivers to help relieve some of that stress on a daily basis. Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas-Austin has dedicated his career to showing how expressive writing can help people get through difficult situations. Hospitals have even used his theories to help nurses and caregivers around the country.

Pennebaker’s advice is simple and quick to understand: sit down for about twenty minutes to write about a traumatic experience that happened in the past. The experience doesn’t have to have occurred that day or week. It doesn’t have to be related to what’s happening on the job, either. Just write about something that’s been negatively impacting your state of mind.

By doing this for four days in a row, expressive writing helps stop a cycle of mental circling that clouds the brain with confused and muffled thoughts. It helps caregivers cope with how they’re feeling, and it also helps them feel better both mentally and physically. For some, expressive writing is life-changing, because it allows people to truly understand how they’re really feeling and makes changes in their lives.

However, Pennebaker admits that expressive writing isn’t for everyone. Even though venting about a painful experience in a journal relieves stress, it also has the potential to create more stress if done too quickly after an event takes place. Pennebaker doesn’t recommend that people write every day because sometimes re-living too much trauma too quickly can make things worse. Yet, writing for four days in a row every once in a while is beneficial. There are even tools to help caregivers throughout their journaling journey.

For the caregiver struggling with writer’s block, books like You Want Me to Do What?, Journaling for Caregivers, and The Complete Caregiver Journal Workbook are excellent choices. Both these books include tips on expressive writing and sentence starters specifically designed for caregivers. In, You Want Me To Do What? by B. Lynn Goodwin, prompts like “Even after more than 30 years…” and “It is possible that…” allow space for self-discovery and expression to dwell on their inner feelings.

The privacy of a journal is great for people who don’t feel comfortable sharing with others. Actually, Pennebaker’s research argues that part of the success of journaling for some is no obligation to share. For others, however, support may be more important to deal with struggles. Many blogs and websites feature chat boards or pages for caregivers to write about their experiences in an open environment. Some of these websites are even specifically related to patients dealing with diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. If caregivers want a more personal connection, some hospitals and organizations around the country offer classes and conferences on expressive writing techniques, or even writing groups where caregivers can get together, write, and share.

Expressive writing is an excellent technique for anyone, not just caregivers, to try if they’re stressed, anxious, or depressed. The power of the written word to heal and renew has been used by cultures for centuries, and still maintains that essence today.

Other Resources on Expressive Writing:
Martha Stettinius, “3 Easy Ways for Caregivers to Relieve Stress Through Writing” Caregivers.com, January 2015
Harvard Health Publications, “Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma” Harvard Medical School, October 2011
Vivé Griffith, “Writing To Heal: Research shows writing about emotional experiences can have tangible health benefits” The University of Texas at Austin, 2005
Paula Spencer Scott, “Journaling Your Stress Away: Three Caregiver Ideas” Caring.com

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