Why telling your story can be good for you
By Dr Sue Jackson
*AS SEEN IN PITUITARY LIFE*
At the recent Pituitary Foundation Annual Conference in Bristol (which, by the way, was brilliant), some of the delegates talked about the patient stories in Pituitary Life and how important they found them. The experience of being diagnosed with a pituitary condition is very challenging, regardless of whether it happens quickly or slowly, and life with a pituitary condition over the longer term involves its own challenges. There are a number of booklets in the Wellbeing Series produced by The Foundation that cover diagnosis and various aspects of adjustment through your journey. These booklets are based on patient experiences as related to the researchers, but of necessity, their focus has to be general. The patient stories in Pituitary Life provide much more detailed information of the variety of experiences over the range of different conditions than it was possible to include in the Wellbeing booklets. This article explores why writing such stories can be good for you.
There are many benefits associated with writing your story, and it’s more than just the relief of a problem shared (which definitely has its place and shouldn’t be overlooked). There is both power and utility in being heard, which is why counselling is so beneficial. When you’re deeply involved in something, it can sometimes be difficult to see the wood for the trees. When you’re thinking about something in your head, you can have the mistaken impression that you understand it, and its meaning to you, thoroughly – it’s only when you come to try and describe it to someone else that you might realise that your understanding isn’t necessarily as complete as you first thought. Writing about the situation can help with the process of acknowledging what’s happening and can enable you to start to gain some perspective on the situation. Patients, and their families and carers, have to live with the condition, and all it involves, all the time. It can feel overwhelming and not all healthcare professionals are good at validating what you’re experiencing or how you’re coping – the reflective process involved in writing can enable you to do this for yourself in acknowledging, appreciating and giving yourself credit for the challenging situations you’ve dealt with.
This might sound a bit strange, but in the ordinary course of events humans are wired to forget rather more than they’re wired to remember. The commonly quoted example is that of women and the pain of childbirth, where forgetting enables some women to go through the process more than once. That said, if something particularly shocking or challenging happens, then the process of forgetting can be interrupted and instead “flashbulb memories” are created. In people who have been sufficiently traumatised, these can become random flashbacks and be a significant source of distress. Indeed, for some people who are traumatised, being forced to retell their story can make their trauma worse and other strategies and interventions are needed to help the brain to understand and process the memories. If you’re not sure if this applies to you and you want to check before you start writing your story, in the “Diagnosis and Treatment” booklet in the Wellbeing series you’ll find a section which describes the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as providing advice on how to seek treatment for it.
In dealing with something so complex, whether you’re a patient, carer or family member, it’s not uncommon to have memories and thoughts that just keep going round and round in your head. Even for those who haven’t been traumatised, there may still have been a lot of stresses of different kinds as well as worry, sadness and frustration to deal with. Having all this just rolling round in your head and heart can be difficult to live with; rumination (going over and over something in your brain) can be poisonous to our health and wellbeing as it repeatedly puts us through the mill of the emotions associated with the memories. You might be forgiven in thinking that writing about it would make things worse, but the opposite seems to be true. Your brain has a tendency to keep reminding you about things that it knows really matter to you. People tend to report that it happens when they’re trying to get off to sleep, or during the early hours of the night. Writing things down seems to reassure your brain that you’re paying attention, thus reducing the number of reminders it generates, and has the added benefit of helping you to sleep better!
Stress activates your threat system (also called your “fight and flight” system), which blocks the bit of your brain that does learning and problem-solving. Writing is a repetitious behaviour and such behaviours are soothing to the brain, enabling the threat system to calm down and other brain systems to become available. Spending some time working through your story in a systematic, constructive and focussed fashion, say with a view to making sense of what’s happened (for example, getting the timeline straight, and identifying who said what and why it mattered or was significant to you), can change random memories into a story with a structure that can feel a bit more orderly and comprehensible, as well as useful in terms of identifying lessons learned or issues that still might need to be resolved. In effect the writing process encourages your whole brain to work on the thoughts and feelings of your personal history, which can have the effect of reducing anxiety.
Writing is not always an easy process, and being faced with a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen can be intimidating, or maybe that’s just me! Hopefully this article has described the benefits of writing, even if you do it as a private pastime rather than sharing it in Pituitary Life.