Take a pen to the past

Watching the sunset by the Florida keys sometime in the eighties.
Watching the sunset by the Florida keys sometime in the eighties.

I think I may have found a way to cure my fear of spiders. It involves writing about the past to unlock when I first developed the phobia and to explore what types of emotions came up at the time. Then, I edit my perception of those experiences so that I create a new narrative—one where I feel empowered, perhaps see the spider as a friend, or as a creature that can bestow upon me special powers such as super human strength or the ability to shoot webs from my wrists. Finally, I envision myself peeing on the spider.

At least this is what I gathered from a recent story on NPR, “Editing your life’s stories can create happier endings.” The story describes a technique referred to as “story editing,” which psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia has studied as a way to improve emotional health. According to the article, Wilson “says small tweaks in the interpretation of life events can reap huge benefits.” Studies have shown that story editing, which is also referred to as emotional or expressive writing, can reduce stress, improve sleep, and reduce visits to the doctor.

The example NPR reporter Lulu Miller gives involves her 2 ½ year-old nephew who had an incredibly frightening experience with a Frankenstein statue. He eventually overcame that fear by changing the end of the story so that instead of jumping into his mother’s arms, he peed on the statue.

While I don’t necessarily think that changing what you know to be true about a traumatic past event is a good practice, I do believe that writing about the experience and developing a framework of understanding can be helpful in overcoming emotional hurdles. From my experience, writing helps create space. You can step outside of the event and see it from a new perspective. Through writing you can also explore new interpretations.

Expressive writing may not be for everyone and shouldn’t replace the need to see an expert when it comes to getting beyond difficult experiences but there are tools and guides to help get you started in the process that are offered by Dr. James Pennebaker. For more information, the following feature from the University of Texas at Austin also offers a nice overview of the practice.  

I’m going to take a pen to the past and a stab at that first encounter with a spider.

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