With Pen in Hand
The Creative Soul
Today is a day that affected the world seventeen years ago. The victims were citizens of the world in that they came from over eighty countries. For those of us in the United States it seemed like a personal attack and yet, it was really an attack on humankind. The grief still lingers as does the fear. Writing poetry (or any literary format) can be a great therapeutic tool for such events.
In 2009 Richard Alleyne explored this in an article written for “The Telegraph”, a UK publication. “Putting pen to paper is said to help the brain “regulate emotion” and reduces feelings of anxiety, fear and sadness. Researchers claim the act of writing about personal experiences has a cathartic effect because it inhibits parts of the brain linked to emotional turmoil, and increases activity in the region to do with self-control.”
Now if you are like most of us, you are thinking “I can’t write!” However, you can because research indicates that the quality of the poetry or prose is of little importance. In fact, some researchers believe the less descriptive, the better in therapeutic benefits. Most writers have gone through those periods of self-doubt. As we saw in last month’s series, the important thing was to keep writing and reading.
Dr. Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, outlined his findings regarding the use of writing to ease social fears and phobias at an American Association for the Advancement of Science convention in a lecture called ‘Putting Feelings Into Words’. He said that expressing yourself in print was “a sort of unintentional emotion regulation”. “It seems to regulate our distress,” he added. “I don’t think that people sit down in order to regulate their emotions but there is a benefit. “I think it could play a role in why many people write diaries or write bad lyrics to songs – the kind that should never be played on the radio.” Dr. Lieberman proved the therapeutic power of writing by scanning the brains of 30 individuals while they described distressing pictures. He found that the act tended to reduce activity in the amygala, a part of the brain connected with emotion and fear and increased activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the mind’s regulator.
Alleyne also reported that in another trial, writing was used in conjunction with exposure therapy for people who had a phobia of spiders. It was discovered that writing about their fears actually boosted the effect of the therapy compared with people who did not put pen to paper. “We do think that it has clinical applications,” Dr. Lieberman said. “People expressing negative emotional responses in words while being exposed gave them greater attenuation (reduction) of fear.” Dr. Lieberman said that the effect was negated if the writing was too vivid or descriptive because it led to people reliving their trauma. Also, typing was not as good as writing long-hand.
Whether journaling thoughts, chronicling the day, attempting poetry or starting a novel, old-fashioned pen and paper has an immense impact on emotional well-being, helping students organize their thoughts and even improve their moods. Despite being viewed as an old-fashion activity, writing by hand is still considered a valuable skill that has many cognitive benefits both in and out of the classroom.
One of the primary benefits from writing by hand is stress relief. Additionally, writing by hand has been proven to increase brain activity and creativity as well as increase memory and retention. By using long-hand, one activates certain centers in the brain that involves more senses and motor neurons. Writing about one’s feelings can improve one’s mood and lead to a greater sense of well-being, sorting out and bring together one’s thoughts as well as prioritizing and viewing one’s fears in a proper perspective.
Even writing a thank you note and/or recording reasons to be grateful before bedtime has led to better sleeping in recent studies. Journaling has been proven to be more than just a simple diary of the day’s events. It can be a way to organize the day’s events and view them from a less emotional standpoint. This in turn opens the door for rational and logical movement without fear and a sense of security.
Electrical engineer and financier Ganesh S. Nagarsekar has led an interesting path from a chawl in Mumbai to being recruited by J. P. Morgan upon graduation and now by Goldman Sachs. Writing poetry is integral to the founder of the website ‘On a Platter by GSN’. Nagarsekar explains: “For starters it makes you feel great. There is something peaceful and liberating about writing poetry. A decent vocabulary as well as a clean flow of thought will take you far in life. A good poem demands both. A poem can be interpreted by different people in entirely different way. This gives you a lot to play with. They are relatively less time consuming. I can write a few verses in the last five minutes of a boring lecture. This last point applies to all fields of writing, not just poetry. Sometimes when you are writing on a particular topic, you come to a verse, and by the time you have completed it you have a whole new perspective on the issue.”
The owner of the NBA team the Phoenix Suns may seems like an odd proponent for writing poetry but Richard Jaffe firmly believes in it. Jaffe is first and foremost a businessman. He was most recently the CEO of the medical technology company Safe Life Corporation. He also founded Safe Sink Corp, a latex glove manufacturer sold to Kimberly-Clark and Nutri-Foods International, a frozen dessert company sold to Coca-Cola Co. His first published book of poetry is entitled “Inner Peace and Happiness”.
Jaffe spoke about his feeling for poetry in an article published in 2013 on a website run by Americans for the Arts which serves, advances, and leads the network of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain, and support the arts in America. “We would be wise to celebrate America’s poetry because it’s an art form that does as much—sometimes even more—for the writer as the reader. Poems inspire, educate, and cleanse. The process of exploring my thoughts and feelings and expressing them in symbolic word images exercises my creativity in a fun way. I think it makes me sharper and, the more I explore the well of my imagination, the faster it fills again.”
Jaffe sees these benefits from writing poetry.
· “1. Improves cognitive function. Learning new words (I’m never without a Thesaurus), working out meter (math!), and finding new ways to articulate our thoughts and feelings (communication) are all good for the brain. Want to get smarter? Write poetry!
· 2. Helps heal emotional pain. Grief is one of the most painful emotions we experience, and it’s also the source of some of the world’s most inspirational poetry. When I have experienced a profound loss, the act of putting my feelings into words or memorializing and paying tribute to those who I lost is extremely cathartic.
· 3. Leads us to greater self-awareness. Most of us don’t have the time or desire to just sit and aimlessly ponder the meaning of our lives or what makes us deeply happy. Writing poetry gives us a constructive way to do that. Not only does it help us explore and gain insight, we have something to show for all that “inner reflection” when we’re done.
· 4. Provides a gift of inspiration or education to others. One thing we know—we are not alone! Universal questions, fears, and emotions are called ‘universal’ because everyone, no matter what country or culture they’re raised in, experiences them. Once we’ve done the work of exploring and finding our own answers, we can help others by sharing them. I like to share my poem ‘Eternal Happiness’ because it describes what I’ve found to be the source of my own eternal happiness.
· 5. Helps us celebrate! For some things, balloons and cake just don’t suffice. Proposing to my wife, the births of my children, their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, falling in love—these were among the most emotionally powerful, joyful times of my life. Thanks to the poems I wrote at the time to capture those feelings, I can experience them again and again.”
I once passed by a sign at a Mexican restaurant while stuck in traffic. Sitting there staring at the sign while counting to ten twenty times to reduce my stress level, I realized the sign was advertising a contest. “write a limerick and win fifty chalupas!” the sign read. To be honest, the sign actually read “Quintilla Comica! Enscribe un Limerick y gana cincuenta chalupas!” Fortunately, beneath it was the English translation: “Write a limerick and win fifty chalupas!” All day I wondered what a chalupa was and as I drove home, again getting stuck in the construction zone back up, began composing a few limericks just for fun and again, stress relief, in my head. The next afternoon I wrote one down on paper and picked up a couple of tacos at this restaurant for supper, submitting my limerick at the same time. A week later I drove by the restaurant and to my surprise, saw my name on the marquee. I had won the contest and happily I discovered I loved chalupas! Carve out a few minutes for yourself today or before bedtime and put pen in hand. It not only will benefit your brain but also your mental and emotional health and maybe even your taste buds!