80 Minutes That Can Brighten Your Life

05/15/2015 03:11 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

I have always been a proponent of periodic journaling as a tool to help reduce stress: "personal" journals, "gratitude" journals, "why I can't make a 4-foot putt" journals.... The idea behind journaling is that it helps you take a step back, gather and express your thoughts, reflect on your current circumstances and put things into a more balanced and accurate perspective.

I was recently reading an article about the proven benefits of another type of writing known as expressive writing. In this case, the difficulties you are having can become the fuel you need to create a personal story that can deliver healthy returns. In fact, in expressive writing's 30-plus-year history, research shows people experience benefits like stress reduction and increased memory and immune function, often reporting fewer visits to the doctor.

The crux of expressive writing is that we all react to and handle stressful situations differently. But when it comes to family caregivers, there is an overarching tendency to keep stressors to ourselves, bottled up as personal secrets that over time can eat away at our mental, emotional and physical well-being.

What I love about expressive writing is that it allows you to become both the author of your story and its sole audience. This allows you to express your innermost feelings without fear of being judged by anyone else.

As you can imagine, whenever I broach the subject of writing, I tend to elicit the same response... "But I'm a terrible writer!" So what! The wonderful thing about expressive writing is that it's not about having perfect grammar or punctuation. You're not being graded or expected to perform in public. Its sole purpose is to help YOU.

Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas in Austin and the expert credited with pioneering much of the work done on expressive writing, believes practicing for just 20 minutes a day for four days can provide a measurable health benefit.

I highly recommend reading his book Writing to Heal, which provides a basic background and explanation as to why expressive writing has shown such great promise. It also includes a step-by-step workbook to help you begin and establish an effective approach to expressive writing. Click on this YouTube link for Dr. Pennebaker's thoughts on this incredible process.

To help you get started, here are guidelines for each of the four expressive writing days. And, remember: during each of the four days, it is important to write continuously for the entire 20 minutes and to be as open as possible about your thoughts and feelings! Also, if by chance you feel very distressed as you write I recommend stopping the exercise at this time and consider picking it up later.

Day 1

The goal of today is to explore. Take a step back and think about the things that are most on your mind and causing you concern. Write about them and what they mean to you. How has your life changed? Are you a different person today than when you first became a family caregiver? You have a blank piece of paper, write about the event itself and how you felt when your first encountered it and how you feel about it now. Also, think about looking at how this event is tied into other parts of your life, i.e. your relationship with family members, friends, work, etc.

Remember, this is for you and only you so write about what is most important to you... the good, the bad and the whatever!

Day 2

Today continue to expand on your thoughts about yesterday's event, although you can certainly introduce a new situation if you'd like.

You may want to think about how this situation or specific event is affecting your life both positively and negatively. Also give thought to your role in how the situation is affecting your life. Be as honest as possible with yourself.

Day 3

It's time to dig deeper. For instance, if being a family caregiver has caused you to make compromises at work, what does this look like and how has this influenced the aspirations that you may have had before becoming a caregiver? Or, conversely, is being a family caregiver causing you to reassess your goals in a more positive way?

There is a range of outcomes and only you can assign an importance to them. I encourage you to work at getting to the heart of your feelings and their impact on you. How is your situation shaping your life and who you are?

Day 4

It's time to tie it all together and create your story.

Today is the last day of your expressive writing exercise. As you continue to address the event that is weighing on you, think about the issues, thoughts and feelings that you have uncorked. What are your emotions at this point? Look into what you have learned, lost and gained as a result of this event and how it will guide your thoughts and actions in the future. What are you learning and what steps can you take to improve your quality of life.

Just let go. The goal is to create a personal story that you can take into your future.

Post-Writing Thoughts

At the end of each day it is very helpful to reflect on your writing session. Writing To Heal recommends using a scale of 0-10 to assign the value you feel is most accurate for each of these four questions (0 has a value of Not At All and 10 has a value of A Great Deal):

1. To what degree did you express your deepest thoughts and feelings?
2. To what degree do you currently feel sad or upset?
3. To what degree do you currently feel happy
4. To what degree was today's writing valuable and meaningful to you?

Describe how you feel your writing went. Did anything surprise you?

Now that you have completed this journey, give it time to settle in. Family caregiving is dynamic. It moves from day to day and you can go from feeling great love to... well.... feeling quite the opposite all in the span of 24 hours. The personal story you have created will give you a better understanding of the path you are on and the adjustments you may need to make to have a more fulfilling and happier life.

I am very excited to have introduced you to this wonderful tool. I found that 80 minutes was such a small commitment for such an important building block that can strengthen your life NOW and LATER. I hope you find the same.

Help yourself. Help others.