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What Is Doomscrolling, and How Is It Impacting Your Mental Health?
Day in and day out, we take in a lot of upsetting or anxiety-inducing news. For some of us, staying glued to our Twitter feeds or news outlet of choice has become something of an obsession — so much so that there’s a new word to describe that (seemingly) ceaseless compulsion to keep refreshing and devouring all those unsavory news stories. That word? Doomscrolling.
In all likelihood, many of us have been practicing this unhealthy habit of consuming large quantities of negative news without naming it — or, in some cases, without realizing it. But it’s essential that we start taking notice, especially when it comes to safeguarding our health. While doomscrolling has already been linked to experiences of depression and poor heart health, there’s also mountains of evidence to support the idea that long-term stress negatively affects our physical health and mental wellbeing too. However, more often than not, those studies don’t specifically address the stress that stems from social media or smartphone usage — at least not yet.
What Exactly Is Doomscrolling?
At its most basic level, doomscrolling is the act of looking through social media posts or news websites, almost to an obsessive point, while feeling more and more anxious and depressed with every story or update we read. Despite feeling worse and worse as we read more and more, we continue to scroll through anyway, almost as if we’re on a quest to find as much disheartening information as possible. Sometimes called “doomsurfing,” the behavior doesn’t just involve getting caught up in negative stories; it also refers to our tendency to actively seek out negative information instead of positive, feel-good headlines. That’s where the “doom” element comes into play.
There’s an almost-masochistic undertone to doomscrolling — the more we consume bad news, the more likely we are to seek out additional stories that make us feel depressed. And it’s become especially easy to doomscroll in a time of climate dread, the COVID-19 pandemic, highly visible police brutality, and increasing political polarization. With access to doomy news always at our fingertips, breaking the cycle can be very difficult.
Why Do We Doomscroll?
So, what is it about our brains that makes us want to doomscroll? According to Dr. Ken Yeager, a psychiatrist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, it has to do with an evolutionary process that possibly once helped us protect ourselves. “We are all hardwired to see the negative and be drawn to the negative because it can harm us physically,” Dr. Yeager explains . This need to seek out dangerous things so we can learn about them once served a very important purpose: It helped us thousands of years ago. It taught our ancestors how to observe and anticipate harmful events so they could better respond to those events — with the end goal of increasing the likelihood of survival.
While most of us no longer need to know the subconsciously recognizable indicators that a tiger might be on the verge of attack or that a wild fruit may be poisonous, that evolutionary relic remains in our brains. There are plenty of modern-day negatives we can seek out to satisfy that mental itch — namely those posts on social media and articles elsewhere online. These sites can give us the “hits” of negativity that our brains are looking for, but they also have a variety of other effects on us.
As researchers delve more deeply into the effects of social media and instant information-sharing networks, they’re beginning to find that these sites and the posts on them have the tendency to divide their users and cause them to feel isolated . In short, our favorite social media apps or sites might be making us feel alone, and that can exacerbate the sadness we feel after reading negative headlines. This phenomenon isn’t relegated to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram; even news sites can make us feel down.
We doomscroll when we have a longing to connect and learn about current events that may address our worries. The behavior often sneaks up on us while we’re attempting to catch up with our social circles or on local and global happenings. That impending feeling of doom and hopelessness can come on strongly after we’ve scrolled past the 20th depressing story about destroyed forests, flooded homes or corrupt politicians — and it might affect us in some detrimental ways.
What Does Doomscrolling Do to Our Brains?
In the past, tragedies were something that affected communities very deeply. Sad stories became touchstones for several generations, often serving as warnings while also shaping the ways those communities conducted themselves. That was partially due to the fact that news didn’t spread as quickly and people didn’t have access to headlines from around the world at the click of a mouse. Nowadays, however, it’s challenging to go about daily life without receiving a flood of tragic news from every possible corner of the world.
Instead of spending months mourning, say, the death of a small child as a community might have decades ago, we have mere seconds to comprehend and process the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people — just moments to think about human and animal suffering, the impacts of climate change, the corruption happening in various countries, and the fear and despair and utter hopelessness of it all. That’s quite a bit to ask our brains to handle, a seemingly impossible feat, and our minds simply cannot process all of the information they receive. To cope with multiple stressors, our brains dull the events’ effects and cause us to enter a state of stress . Instead of feeling relaxed when scrolling through our phones after work, we often end up feeling far more agitated or depressed, particularly if we were already experiencing those emotions.
According to the Cleveland Clinic , “doomscrolling can reinforce negative thoughts and a negative mindset,” and this can impact our mental health immensely. If you’re already prone to depression, for example, reading depressing news stories can worsen your symptoms and increase feelings of loneliness and disconnection. And excessive consumption of negative news stories correlates with increased stress, fear and anxiety and with poor sleep even in people who weren’t already experiencing these emotions and effects on a regular basis. This causes our bodies to continually expose our brains to stress hormones, which can eventually lead to exhaustion and other mental health issues. So what can we do about it?
How Can We Stop Doomscrolling?
If you’re keen to avoid the negative effects of doomscrolling, the first thing that can help is to learn to recognize the habit — you might be engaging in doomscrolling without even realizing it. From there, you can begin to take steps to change your behavior, keeping in mind that lifestyle shifts don’t happen overnight.
Fortunately, and somewhat ironically, there are plenty of apps designed to help you limit your amount of screen time. If you tend to wake up and fall into a pit of doomscrolling while you’re still in bed in the morning, you can use the apps to “lock down” your phone during these early hours to train yourself to stay away from worrisome stories and posts. After a little while, going to your phone to check it won’t be your automatic wake-up reaction.
It’s also helpful to enjoy activities that keep you more aware and in the moment. Exercise, socializing and meditation are excellent examples of activities that help you focus on the here and now by engaging your mind and body at the same time. Learning how to live in the moment can help you relax and lower your stress levels. This is like hitting a mental reset button and can be particularly helpful after a doomscrolling session.
If you’re someone who doomscrolls because being informed feels like a part of your civic duty, consider connecting with an actual, in-real-life activist organization local to you. It can be easier to disconnect from grim news across the globe once you focus in on tangible ways that you can make a difference.
Even a brief pause can help you break the doomscrolling habit. Do you often find yourself picking up your smartphone and navigating to your news app almost reflexively? If so, try to be more intentional in these actions. When you pick up your phone or wake up your laptop, stop for a moment and think about what you’re doing and what you’re planning to look at. Then, make a choice not to open Twitter — or even put your phone back down and walk away.
Learning to Live a Doomscroll-Free Life
It’s no secret that stress can have harmful effects on your mind and body. Being under constant stress can lead to everything from high blood pressure to ulcers to heart disease — and doomscrolling is one of those activities that can keep you in a near-constant state of stress, however low a level it may be. It’s essential to lower your stress levels to lead a happier, healthier life, and cutting out doomscrolling is one way to get you closer to this goal.
If you’ve found yourself doomscrolling lately and you’re finding the tips above difficult to implement, it can help to get in touch with a mental health professional. A counselor or therapist can address your concerns in a positive, supportive and uplifting environment and help you cope with any symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression you’re feeling. They can also help you formulate an effective plan for changing behaviors you want to move away from and teach you techniques you can apply to make measurable progress.
There will always be bad news in the world — and there will always be good news, too. Making a conscious effort to limit your consumption of the negative or even seek out content that’s a bit more positive can do wonders for your mental health and go a long way towards improving your outlook on the world. And as you’re getting started, it doesn’t hurt to put down your phone or shut your laptop for a little while, either.
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More than words: why poetry is good for our health.
“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew That even as we hurt, we hoped That even as we tired, we tried That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious”
Amanda Gorman, the 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate, spoke these powerful words at the 2020 presidential inauguration from the dais of the United States Capitol where, just weeks prior, a violent insurrection had erupted.
For millions of viewers watching virtually, amidst a raging pandemic and tumultuous political moment, her words provided solace and healing.
Gorman’s performance was a testament to the power of poetry and its delivery through spoken word to express our collective fears and most fervent hopes. Research shows that poetry—reading, writing, speaking it—can help support our mental health, especially in times of great need.
Amanda Gorman. Every word. Every single word. Inspiring and healing. Powerful and moving. #InaugurationDay https://t.co/LF5UQPp1aW — Javier Muñoz (@JMunozActor) January 20, 2021
The Healing Word
Poetry can provide comfort and boost mood during periods of stress, trauma and grief. Its powerful combination of words, metaphor and meter help us better express ourselves and make sense of the world and our place in it.
Different research studies have found evidence that writing or reading poetry can be therapeutic for both patients dealing with illness and adversity as well as their caregivers. A 2021 study of hospitalized children found that providing opportunities for them to read and write poetry reduced their fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue. A group of 44 pediatric patients was given poetry-writing kits containing writing prompts, samples of selected poems, colorful construction paper, pens, and markers. The majority of children reported that they felt happy after the poetry activity. The post-poetry surveys also found that writing and reading poetry gave the children a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection.
Another study found that guided poetry writing sessions significantly alleviated both symptoms of depression and trauma in adolescents who have been abused. Other studies found that poetry therapy with a certified therapist helped cancer patients improve emotional resilience, alleviate anxiety levels and improve their quality of life .
Poetry therapy also may support the emotional well-being of caregivers, including domestic violence counselors , family members of dementia patients and frontline healthcare workers. A systematic review published in 2019 found that poetry can help healthcare workers combat burnout and increase empathy for patients, giving the frontlines another arts-based tool to turn to during the pandemic and beyond.
And the healing benefits of poetry can extend to just about anyone: one study of undergraduate students in Iran found that reading poetry together reduced signs of depression, anxiety, and stress. Using poetry to find our voice can open up new ways of expressing ourselves that cannot be traversed with everyday words, and open up ways to heal and restore us particularly in times of stress. As UCLA psychiatrist and poetry therapist Robert Carroll once put it : “Our voices are embodiments of ourselves, whether written or spoken. It is in times of extremity that we long to find words or hear another human voice letting us know we are not alone.”
Rhythm and Rhyme on the Mind
Our brains are highly attuned to rhyme and rhythm in poetry. Even newborn infants respond to rhymes. In one 2019 study , researchers measured the surface brain activity of 21 Finnish newborn babies listening to regular speech, music, or nursery rhymes. Only the nursery rhymes produced a significant brain response when the rhymes were altered, suggesting that the infants’ brains were trying to predict what rhyme should have occurred.
Of course, even adults appreciate rhythmic and rhyming poems. One study found that the brain can automatically detect poetic harmonies and patterns even when the reader had not read much poetry before. In particular, stanzas with rhymes and a regular meter , or rhythm, led to a greater aesthetic appreciation and more positively felt emotions. This may be because, according to the cognitive fluency theory , we tend to enjoy things that are easier for us to mentally process, and both rhyme and repeated patterns do just that.
Rhyme and rhythm in poetry also intensify all emotional responses , be it joy or sadness. And like music, poetry can give us the chills, producing literal goosebumps with a good stanza. One study found that recited poetry could cause participants to feel intense emotions and subjective feelings of chills. Surprisingly, even subjects with little prior experience with poetry were moved; 77% of them said they experienced chills listening to unfamiliar poems. Video recording of the participants’ skin (via a “goosecam”) captured objective evidence of goosebumps during the readings.
These poetry-induced chills activate parts of the brain’s frontal lobe and ventral striatum, which are involved with reward and pleasure. The insular cortex, a brain area associated with bodily awareness, was also activated during these moving passages which may explain why poetry can feel like a full-body experience.
The words matter too, of course. The right words in a poem elevate the intensity of positive emotions the reader has.
The use of metaphor—making comparisons and drawing connections between different concepts—in particular has been found to activate the right hemisphere of the brain . Normally, our brain’s left hemisphere is far more involved in helping us understand language, but research has found that the right hemisphere may be critically important for integrating meanings of two seemingly unrelated concepts into a comprehensible metaphor.
In times of trauma, our language centers may go offline, making it difficult to fully express ourselves. By activating a different part of the brain through metaphor, poetry may help us again find our voice.
Though more research still needs to be conducted to understand all the ways poetry impacts our health, this much is clear: beyond rhyme or reason, poetry is good for our health and soul.
How to Make a Rhyme on Your Own Time
- Listen to The Slowdown daily poem podcast from American Public Media and the National Endowment for the Arts.
- Check out these 5 tips for how to read poetry from NPR.
- Write your own poems. Try these poetry exercises to help you get started.
- Read some selected poetry that resonates with teens.
- Transform Shakespeare into a pop song or vice-versa. Take a sonnet by the Bard and write it like a Top 40 hit. Or turn your favorite love ballad and make it a sonnet .
- Try your hand at writing your own poem – these worksheets of literary devices can help you get your creative juices flowing.
- Find a favorite children’s poet , such as Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl.
- Act out a poem. Sing a poem. Find different ways of enjoying poetry!
- Write a haiku . A traditional form of Japanese poem with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, writing a haiku can be easy and fun.
- Write an acrostic poem . You can start with your own name, but branch out to anything you like or enjoy.
This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide . Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.
We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope?
Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at [email protected] org . Be well and stay safe.
Lead Image: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II / Flickr
Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima . Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.
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This may be the most creative path to mental health you’ve never tried.
One of the best pieces of breakup advice my friend Genna gave me during a tumultuous end to a long-term relationship was to write poetry.
Feeling desperate in my heartbreak, I was willing to try anything. As Emily Dickinson wisely advised:
Not knowing when the Dawn will come
I open every Door
I wrote more than two dozen poems in the following weeks. Artistically speaking, they were a very poor showing, but as a tool to process the big emotions of a difficult time, the poems were highly successful. Writing them was cathartic and at times revelatory.
Poetry is experiencing a new golden age, with young writers of color taking the lead
Many years later – and heart fully healed, I’m happy to report – emerging scientific research into the wellness potential of poetry supports my personal experience.
Interested in the effectiveness that poetry has on combating loneliness, particularly during the early isolating period of the Covid-19 pandemic, David Haosen Xiang and Alisha Moon Yi wrote a 2020 article in the Journal of Medical Humanities inspired by their experience leading poetry workshops.
Xiang and Yi, then students of Harvard Medical School and Harvard College, respectively, cited a number of studies (some with small sample sizes, admittedly) showing various health benefits from reading, writing and listening to poetry and creative nonfiction. They have been shown to combat stress and depression symptoms, as well as reduce pain, both chronic and following surgery, the authors pointed out. Poetry has also been shown to improve mood, memory and work performance.
Poetry + football: It's not as strange as it sounds
Separately, a 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that a group of 44 hospitalized children who were encouraged to read and write poetry saw reductions in fear, sadness, anger, worry and fatigue. Poetry was a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection, the researchers concluded.
Spoken word poet Sekou Andrews demonstrated the power words can have in difficult times when you may feel broken, at the recent Life Itself conference , a health and wellness event presented in partnership with CNN. In a “poetic voice” presentation, he shared with the audience a story about his and his wife’s infertility struggles and loss. As Andrews explained on stage:
All inspiration really is is a peephole into possibility.
There is a wall and then s uddenly something shakes it, disrupts it,
And there’s a crack that appears
And you can see something on the other side.
And there is a power to simply being able to say,
“I see it!”
“Whether it is coping with pain, dealing with stressful situations, or coming to terms with uncertainty, poetry can benefit a patient’s well-being, confidence, emotional stability, and quality of life,” Xiang and Yi wrote.
Why poetry is special
Poetry’s ability to provide comfort and boost mood during periods of stress, trauma and grief may have a lot to do with framing and perspective.
As a creative device, poems slow our reaction to an experience and can alter our perception of it in ways that help us find new angles, go deeper. It can strengthen our sense of identity and connect us to the experiences of others to foster empathy.
Amanda Gorman reminded America what poetry can do
“I always say you don’t hire the poet to hit the nail on the head for you,” Andrews explained in an email. “You hire the poet to whisper in your ear, tap you on your shoulder, make you turn around and see a version of yourself that is unexpected, surprising and inspiring.”
The medium also has a unique way of getting to the heart of the matter – “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes,” wrote the French poet Joseph Roux – as metaphor and imagery are particularly well suited for tapping into and synthesizing emotions.
“And the abstract nature of poetry may make it easier to take a close look at painful experiences, which might feel too threatening to approach in a direct, literal manner,” wrote Linda Wasmer Andrews in an article about the practice of poetry therapy in Psychology Today .
Poetry can also elicit peak emotional responses. In one study from 2017 , researchers measured 27 people for their psychophysiological responses (such as chills or goosebumps) to hearing poetry read aloud. These physical responses are connected to the rewards-sensing area of the brain, the study explained.
In his poem “For the Interim Time,” John O’Donohue describes this kind of cerebral alchemy:
What is being transfigured here in your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.
Getting more poetry in your life
Read, write and listen. Those are the main options to infusing your life with more poetry.
To expose yourself to something new, visit open mic nights (real or in person), or try the daily (and short) poem podcast The Slowdown from American Public Media and the National Endowment for the Arts, or subscribe to its newsletter. There are other poetry podcasts as well.
And try an accessible collection. The actor John Lithgow compiled an introductory primer in the book “ The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family .” I personally love Shel Silverstein, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds and John O’Donohue if you want to go deeper with one poet and be perpetually entertained and enlightened.
And to write it, you need no formal training to get started. You may enjoy trying different styles (such as haiku) and experiments. The community-oriented website Read Poetry has an enticing guide to some creative exercises you may find inspiring.
“Just write. Just speak. Don’t worry about it being good to you, you’ll get there. First, just let it be good for you,” Andrews said.
But no matter how you engage, just get in there and start feeling your way around for what you need. Or as poet Billy Collins wrote in “Introduction to Poetry”:
…walk inside the poem’s ro om
and feel the walls for a light switch.
Sign up for CNN’s Stress, But Less newsletter. Our six-part mindfulness guide will inform and inspire you to reduce stress while learning how to harness it.
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Poetry allows individuals to use the nuance of language to express some of the most difficult feelings that people can experience. Poetry helps us shape our loss, heartache, and even our depression , in the form of free verse, haiku, iambic pentameter and other styles you might prefer. It allows us to confront our innermost thoughts and feelings and provides a comfortable format for sharing them with others. Below we explore the power of poetry in our modern-day society.
Poetry as a form of comfort: Reading poetry can transport you out of your own world and into someone else’s. There’s something very soothing and comforting about the repetition and rhyme. For some, it can be a source of great relief and relaxation. Poetry has even been shown to boost your mood during periods of stress, trauma and grief. Writing poetry can help you get to the heart of your thoughts or feelings that you don’t quite understand, or those that you want others to better comprehend. It can help us navigate these muddy waters, to find a kernel of truth about ourselves, humankind, even the world itself.
Poetry as a shared experience: Poets allow a certain amount of vulnerability in penning their deepest thoughts, desires, and struggles. By letting their audience in to themselves, they open the door to allow for a deep connection with their readers. And sometimes it’s just what we need to hear. Finding comfort in the knowledge of a shared pain –whether it’s through poetry, prose, or song lyrics, can help us put words to our own pain and suffering. As Coleridge once said , “poetry is the best spoken words in the best order.”
Poetry as a platform for change: While poetry can be a source of comfort, it can also be a powerful tool for societal change. Through spoken word, many have become more comfortable sharing about important topics like mental health and the internet has helped to spread these messages. Sabrina Benaim’s “Explaining My Depression to My Mother ,” has nearly 4.5 million views, evokes feelings of empathy and understanding from others who live with conditions like depression and anxiety, and helps to educate and inform those who might not understand behavioral health disorders.
We all have the opportunity to give a voice to mental health in our own way. Starting an open mic night for mental health on your campus, reciting your latest poem at a local coffeehouse, or sharing a tweet or post you think will resonate with others experiencing mental health issues is a great way to keep the conversation going.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2017 and has been edited and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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Use Poetry to Maintain Mental Wellness
Did you know that poetry can be a great tool for maintaining healthy mental wellness? It's true! A clear mind comes from expression of thought and writing is a great vehicle for our thoughts. Writing can be a self-healing process and one that includes the local literary community around you-- sharing your work and interacting with other writers can help you to clear your mind and better understand your thought processes.
- The concept of being free . Slam poets often use the term "get free" when encouraging another performer who's sharing their truth. This term is an embodiment of what writing and poetry can do for the individual. When you write your poetry, encourage yourself to do so without inhibitions or second-thought. Try to avoid crossing things out or overthinking lines. Don't focus too much on structure and format, but more on what you actually want to say. This will help your poetry be as close as possible to your truth. When writing in this free form/stream of consciousness way it is most effective to pick a topic or issue that's personal to you and allow yourself to go from there. Speak your truth and do what feels right. Learning how to create a safe space for yourself and others is a great way to build a new comfort zone so that you and your fellow writers feel comfortable delving deep and writing about the real stuff.
- Effective wellness writing exercises . There are several approaches to writing poetry that can help you become more honest and introspective. If you're not sure where to start, letter poetry is helpful when trying to resolve conflicts in personal relationships. It's been proven that writing letters to people helps garner a feeling of closure, even if (and sometimes especially if) they are never sent. Another prompt you can set for yourself is to write about a perspective on an issue or argument that you don't agree with. Try putting yourself in the shoes of those who you've disagreed recently as this can help you maintain empathy and an open mind. If you run out of ideas , try to be self-reflective and write from there. The best poetry comes from the heart.
- Why writing works . The act of expression in any art form can be liberating but poetry allows for someone to write about their feelings in a number of ways, be is abstract or literal. A poet can write about depression using the metaphor of ice cream on the sidewalk or they can express themselves through creative non-fiction by telling their story in a more narrative form. This release of harbored thoughts and emotions can be an exhale for the writer, who may have been congested with unresolved feelings. Writing poetry is such a reliable medium because it's an all-inclusive art that can be approached from any way-- there is no such thing as a "bad" form of poetry and something about that makes it safer and comforting. Writing allows for the artist to be introspective in their creation of work, and then communal in their recitation and distribution of poetry.
- The power of storytelling . Never underestimate the power of relatability. Sharing your poetry with others should be an empowering act that makes you feel validated and heard. Listening to poetry and the narratives of others can also be equally as impactful; hearing others talk about things that may or may not relate to you creates a very safe and human energy that diminishes social insecurity. The act of storytelling immediately turns the poetic into the political because you become an advocate of truth, who's contributing to a community greater than yourself. Be responsible with your sharing and don't rush into it unless it feels completely natural. The more you expose yourself to these types of environments, like poetry slams , the more comfortable you'll be in participating in them.
- Education about mental illness . There are many stigmas about mental illness that run strong in society. Many people think of mental illness as something that can't happen to them and distance themselves from being educated about the topic. Others may experience symptoms of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder but have been taught to think of it as something to be ashamed of and choose not to process and deal with their emotions properly. If you or someone you know is suffering, writing poetry is an excellent way to share and come to terms with these feelings while allowing yourself to be honest about the impact that your state of mind is having on your quality of life. Writing poetry is an incredibly effective way to process whatever you're going through, and reading poetry and other work from writers who have similar experiences can also help you gain perspective and empathy. Don't be shy! As a Power Poet you have already taken the first step in being part of a community that shares in these struggles and is here to support you as you share your thoughts and overcome personal obstacles .
Hear more on the topic of mindfulness from The Jed Foundation , a trusted partner working to promote mental and emotional health.
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A Look Back and a Path Forward: Poetry's Healing Power during the Pandemic
David haosen xiang.
1 Harvard Medical School, 25 Shattuck Street, Boston, MA 02115 United States
Alisha Moon Yi
2 Harvard College, Cambridge, MA USA
This discussion seeks to highlight the ability of poetry to combat loneliness, a growing public health problem with significant negative health outcomes that potentially impact millions of Americans. We argue that poetry can play a very relevant role and have an impact in medicine. Through a brief literature review of previous studies on poetry in medicine, we demonstrate that poetry can not only combat loneliness but can also play important roles in helping patients, physicians, and other healthcare professionals/providers. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe now is the perfect opportunity to utilize poetry because the benefits can be experienced even in solitude, which is why this is such a timely and pertinent issue today.
“Healing is a matter of time, but it is also a matter of opportunity.” -- Hippocrates
During this pandemic, the dangers of loneliness and social isolation cannot be ignored. Loneliness is associated with a 26% increase in risk of premature mortality, can have a negative impact on cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems, and affects about a third of people in most industrialized countries (Cacioppo and Cacioppo 2018 ). Reducing social interactions is a well-documented risk factor for several mental disorders including schizophrenia and major depression, as well as generating increased feelings of fear and anxiety (Miller 2011 ). Moreover, with acute stress generated during the COVID-19 pandemic, reported symptoms of psychological stress, including loneliness, among American adults have increased since 2018 (McGinty et al. 2020 ).
With the disruption of regular networks of trusted individuals and groups, that means we must confront these pertinent mental health issues ourselves. Yet without meaningful methods or practical tools to do so, many have nowhere to turn to, and no solution seems to be in sight. Lack of access to mental health resources is exacerbated by this pandemic, and improving mental health services is needed (Moreno et al. 2020 ). After all, loneliness is becoming an incredibly pressing public health problem, and must be addressed with proper engagement and full support from the medical community.
In this paper, we hope to show that poetry can be a powerful, practical, and accessible tool to combat loneliness directly, and that poetry can provide a new avenue for healing. Since the nineteenth century, poetry has been used formally and informally for healing purposes in the United States, and now, in our current day, we believe the opportunity for poetry’s significance and applications to be recognized is crucial (Mazza and Hayton 2013 ). During this COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity for poetry to provide healing can be immediately effective and applied widely.
Poetry in medicine
Poetry, as a healing tool applicable and accessible to anyone, can have a concrete impact in all areas of medicine, specifically in providing innovative methods for healing to occur individually and holistically.
Several scientific studies and reviews have previously demonstrated that poetry has a beneficial impact on patients in terms of managing pain, coping with stressors, and improving personal well-being (Lepore and Smyth 2002 ). Moreover, listening, writing, and reading poetry is associated with a reported improvement in pain following a surgical procedure and improves a patient's ability to deal with chronic illness (Arruda, Garcia, and Garcia 2016 ; Naidu and Shabangu 2015 ; Eum and Yim 2015 ; Hovey, Khayat, and Feig 2018 ). Additionally, poetry provides patients with further methods of coping with unexpected or stress-inducing situations. A previous study demonstrated that reading and writing poetry temporarily increases working memory capacity, which can increase an individual’s ability to proactively cope with stressful events. Moreover, this improvement in working memory is associated with greater recall of medication instructions and scheduled health appointments, which improves health outcomes (Klein 2002 ).
In directly addressing mental health, poetry has been shown to have positive short and long-term mood changes as well as behavioral effects in school and work performance (Lepore 1997 ). Expressive writing can decrease physiological stress indicators such as lower muscle tension, reduce perspiration level, and lower blood pressure and heart rate levels (Smyth et al. 1999 ). Furthermore, the introspective writing that poetry fosters also offers patients an opportunity to reflect on their lives, enabling them to accept their situation with poise and peace (Heimes 2011 ). This aspect of poetry is often highlighted in palliative care, as there has been a growing recognition within the field to recognize how poetry can develop person-centered organizations, better train health professionals, and support a patient’s overall well-being (Davies 2018 ; Coulehan and Clary 2005 ). Previous literature review on poetry therapy for patients in palliative and end-of-life care show that poetry facilitates meaningful shared experiences and significantly improves relationships between healthcare providers and patients (Gilmour, Riccobono, and Haraldsdottir 2019 ).
In health professions education, specifically, in nursing, poetry has been frequently employed as a teaching platform to teach values such as empathy, to develop greater emotional awareness, to reduce anxiety and stress, and to assess communication skills (Mood 2018 ; Jack 2015 ). The benefits that poetry can have in fostering empathy and greater self-awareness for those in the nursing profession have been well-documented and provide a different approach that can greatly enhance knowledge of complex and ambiguous situations often experienced in nursing practice (Clancy and Jack 2016 ).
For the caregiver, physician, or healthcare professional, poetry can provide a different lens with which to view the field of medicine. Poetry offers an innovative approach to further humanizing medicine through promoting empathy, emotional sensitivity, cultivating a compassionate presence, and ultimately, providing an accessible platform to acquire and develop skills that are difficult to otherwise teach. Furthermore, these are traits crucial in healing and can significantly increase one’s own effectiveness, further helping and facilitating the patient experience.
For patients, poetry provides a space to vent, to reflect, and to come to terms with their respective situation. It provides an organizational structure with which to tackle new perceptions and deal with negative thoughts. Healing can take place within individuals, at a pace determined by them. Whether it is coping with pain, dealing with stressful situations, or coming to terms with uncertainty, poetry can benefit a patient’s well-being, confidence, emotional stability, and quality of life (Heimes 2011 ). Poetry restores agency, allowing one’s voice to be heard and represented the way he or she wishes it to be. Moreover, when writing, the poems that patients generate can serve as valuable repositories of past knowledge and experience and can comfort relatives or affected parties, which oftentimes strengthens relations with loved ones. Poetry has immediate benefits for not just the individual but also for the immediate family members, and the larger community as a whole.
The benefits of poetry in medicine and public health today
One of the key tools to combat loneliness is a strong social relationship with others. A genuine connection with others can effectively help those who are suffering from loneliness. As a matter of fact, the presence of strong social relationships is associated with a 50% increased likelihood of survival, and surprisingly, both actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, and Layton 2010 ). A 2015 study found no differences in increased likelihood of mortality between measures of objective and subjective social isolation, suggesting that both perceived and actual social isolation can have similar detrimental effects on individuals (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015 ).
That is where the three aspects of poetry—reading, writing, and sharing—become so incredibly relevant and applicable. To paraphrase poet Paul Celan, a poem is like a handshake: it creates bonds between people. Poetry, and the creative introspection it fosters, can help individuals feel more connected to themselves, to those around them, and to the external world as a whole. Even when practiced in isolation, as many individuals currently are during this pandemic, poetry can increase self and interpersonal awareness, encourage the ownership of voicing your own ideas and emotions, and increase one’s ability to reflect upon significant memories or current-day situations. This can directly address both actual and perceived social isolation and can be a powerful step in helping individuals combat loneliness.
When reading poetry, one is able to challenge his or her own perspectives, to become more tolerant of different points of view, and to appreciate the nuances of various opinions. Reading poetry can also help individuals feel connected to others; oftentimes, reading a poem can remind the individual of a similar experience or emotion, creating a sense of belonging. Poems have real emotional power and serve as a testament to all of us that we are never alone, that amongst these collective voices we can find those that ring at the same frequency as ours (Wassiliwizky et al. 2017 ). Reading poetry can provide solace and great hope to us, as it reaffirms our place in the world and, in those moments when we come across a poem or certain lines that strongly resonate with us, it is as if we are jolted with electricity at the sheer joy of knowing we can share a bond with someone who we may have never met.
In writing poetry, the mind is forced to slow down and to revisit memories, often bringing to life past emotions and experiences. The process itself is a dynamic one in which writers often learn many new things about themselves that they did not previously think about. Writing poetry also allows one to strengthen an individual’s sense of identity and voice. Poems function as fragments of ourselves, and when writing, we are able to represent ourselves the way we want to be represented, in the most honest and effective light. Poetry allows us to bear witness to who we are and to put into words what often cannot be expressed easily otherwise. Poetry creates avenues for self-expression that cannot be felt through other means of communication. This in itself can be a healing and restorative process, a self-guided therapy that allows us to strengthen our mental health and connection to ourselves, and to those around us.
And when provided a space to share poetry with others, as one is listening to others’ lived experiences and emotions, social bonds can be formed, and safe spaces can be generated where vulnerability and tolerance are actively encouraged. In sharing favorite lines or discussing experiences and emotions with strangers, poetry can bring people together, from all backgrounds, with subtle ease. Unexpected commonalities are frequently found, which spur conversation and a further willingness to create new social relationships. Poetry can create genuine community and an atmosphere of welcome and warmth.
We experienced this firsthand through the Hope Storytelling Project, a series of virtual poetry workshops that we co-led and taught through our local library systems in Cambridge and Las Vegas. We had developed our program with discussion and connection in mind, as we wanted both to teach poetry and to allow our participants to form meaningful social relationships with each other. Quickly, we realized that the sense of community we were able to generate through poetry was incredibly valuable. Over the course of the summer, we consistently had participants remark on the sense of belonging and community that the workshops provided, and how encouraged they were to speak and share their hopes and fears, their worries and joys, and to feel a real connection to others, while learning and immersing themselves in poetry. They shared how the space absorbed them in heartfelt sharing, how the workshops felt like a gentle cleansing, how people’s willingness to share was truly touching, and how poetry enabled them to continue their journey of self-discovery and healing.
Our experiences with teaching and leading these poetry workshops reaffirmed our belief that poetry can serve as an effective antidote to loneliness and the health complications that social isolation brings. During this pandemic, this project provides a model for coping with the uncertainty and chaos of life: as we were reminded of each other's stories, we were able to find similarities in seemingly different lives, finding connection through those similarities. In the moments of interaction and dialogue with each other, we saw genuine relationships being cultivated.
Most importantly, the accessible nature of poetry makes it an incredibly relevant and applicable tool, especially now, when genuine connections are a scarce commodity. Poetry is particularly powerful because it is so easily accessible, as its benefits can be experienced from the comfort of one’s own home. Simply by reading a poem once a week, sharing a poem with a friend, or spending five to ten minutes to free write about a favorite memory, a current idea, a worry or hope, can all be effective first steps in experiencing the benefits of poetry. It is imperative that we bring such experiences into more communities, where other methods and tactics to combat loneliness may not be as accessible. The opportunity is now to recognize the healing potential of poetry.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
David Haosen Xiang and Alisha Moon Yi contributed equally to this article.
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How Poetry Can Teach Us About Mental Health
Poetry and mental health go hand-in-hand for so many of us because poetry gives our hearts a place to express our experiences in a healing way. Poems offer us a safe space to process our pain and vocalize our hardships. Poetry is a beautiful gift we get to share that has so much to teach us about the topic of mental health.
1. Poetry ignites our compassion and helps us see others in their struggles.
Poetry evokes emotion in its readers, and it provides an opportunity to open up through vulnerable storytelling and honest reflection. When we read a deeply personal poem, it challenges us to see the world from the writer’s perspective. And even though we may struggle with different things or battle different hardships, there is a vulnerability to poetry that calls us to compassion for one another.
2. Poetry offers a therapeutic outlet for processing emotions.
Journaling and writing are great tools when processing pain or challenging circumstances. Writing poetry, in particular, is a great option—and it is not reserved only for established poets and writers. Poetry teaches us that our words matter and our experiences often shape them. Poetry gives us the opportunity to create art out of the things we’ve been through. It teaches us that our mental health is worth fighting for, and sometimes, the best starting place is pen and paper.
3. Poetry helps give us the words we don’t know how to express otherwise.
Poetry is a powerful shout into the darkness that says, “you are not alone.” Oftentimes, we find ourselves resonating with certain poems that so eloquently express the feelings we didn’t know how to convey. Poetry can serve as a starting point as we try and open up our hearts to conversations about our own mental health challenges. When we don’t have the right words to say, we can look to a poem to help us find our way and navigate difficult conversations. Poetry teaches us that we deeply desire connection with one another, and poems provide us with the proof that we are never navigating our struggles alone.
4. Poetry raises awareness for mental illnesses and the importance of mental health.
Poetry is a highly personal and vulnerable art form. Every time a poet decides to share their experience with mental health, it helps encourage others to do the same. Our journeys are different, and our mental health struggles may manifest themselves differently, but every story and poem helps us to gain a deeper understanding of another’s struggles. Every poem is a brave declaration to the world saying, “Pay attention. This matters.” And those are the words everyone needs to hear about their mental health: it matters. Poems help prioritize mental health as a topic that is always worth talking about and deeply important to share. This type of advocacy through poetry can help remind us that our mental health is worth protecting.
Poetry has so much to teach us about mental health if we open our hearts to its message. We can learn how deeply our connections to one another matter and how we can have compassion for each other’s stories. Poetry teaches us that words can be an integral part of healing and that other poets can help us find them when we don’t have the strength to speak. And, lastly, poetry teaches us about coming together to normalize the fight for mental health: for ourselves and for our community.
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Commentary: Reading, writing poetry can help improve mental health
By Eric Pilgrim October 6, 2022
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FORT KNOX, Ky. — “There lurks in man’s heart a raging beast, within each mind a raptor’s nest. When winds breathe, creature flees the savage feast, winged captor flies to its rest …”
I’ve been writing poetry for about as long as I can remember; in truth, I can’t even remember how long.
My mother died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1996; my father died in 2005 from multiple urinary tract infections. Right after my father’s passing, my sister and I gathered in our childhood home and started the process of sorting through old cardboard boxes tucked away in our parents’ closet. That’s when I rediscovered just how long I had been writing poetry.
Within a box were several homemade cards to my mom with poems written by a much younger me. I only know they were from me because I had written my name in crayon on many of them; the words didn’t look familiar.
Judging by the poor penmanship and use of crayon, I figured that my age had to have been in the single digits, maybe closer to 5 than 9. As I read each one, I was surprised at how okay the poems were: the choice of words, the rhythm, especially knowing they came from the mind of a child. I briefly got swept up in the moment.
Sometimes poetry does that to me, especially when written by the masters. I don’t understand why it doesn’t do that for everyone.
What is it about this one form of art that makes so many people cringe, mock or sidestep it in favor of virtually every other form of art? Music draws huge crowds; paintings and drawings in any format fascinate people; theater, movies and television shows are almost always the talk of an office or classroom. But start to recite poetry, and — *cue crickets* …
Yet there are still those throughout history who have sworn by the medium’s power.
Pastors often recite poetry in sermons. Ancient times were replete with it.
Poets moved nations to nobler actions or away from evil actions. They soothed the minds and captivated the hearts of kings. The Bible, for instance, devotes at least five books to poetry that Christians and Jews often turn to today for comfort and advice: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. Poems are also woven into several other books of the Bible.
English professors consider poetry a worthy study, a nobler art. Some of the greatest poets of England during the kingdom’s long golden age of literature are still celebrated by many scholars today: Chaucer, Milton, Bunyan, Woodsworth and Shakespeare to name a few.
So, why do so many give poetry the cold shoulder today? That question comes up every April during National Poetry Month. But since April is half a year away and today is National Poetry Day, I decided to explore that question now.
Poets and poetry enthusiasts who are in-the-know know that the question of poetry’s demise continues to be a hotly debated subject. Every year. For years. And years.
In April 2015, the Washington Post grabbed readers’ attention to the subject with a commentary called Poetry is going extinct, government data show: “Most of the discussion around the question involves qualitative assessments that are inherently unsolvable,” admitted the author. “Is poetry too political, or not political enough? Is it too popular, or too elitist? Too pretentious or too profane?”
Though the author actually avoided answering those questions, he did instead highlight statistical facts about poetry: for instance, fewer people were reading poetry than ever before — down to 6.7% in 2012 from 17% in 1992; it was less popular than jazz, dance and even knitting — only more popular than going to the opera; and searches for poetry continued to “fall precipitously.”
If a similar study had been done today, it would probably still reflect that same downward trend and dire forecast.
At least some of the problem has to do with perceptions. Let’s face it, poetry tends to be considered either intellectual snobbery or sophomoric drivel: a dark cloud that the art doesn’t seem to have the prowess, backing or interest to remove.
Fast-forward to 2021, in comes what I consider a noble stab at reviving the art. Or maybe just an attempt at dusting off poetry’s original intent.
In a Psychology Today article titled, “The Power of Poetry Therapy,” the authors declared, “both the reading and writing of poetry can be therapeutic, because whether we’re reading or writing poems, they help us engage our senses and our feelings. This provides a good merging of poetry and psychology.”
Sounds like some good Army training in mental and spiritual resilience to me.
I would argue that they are absolutely correct in their assessment. My first taste of self-therapy started after my second year of college. I had been struggling with a lot of emotions that I had masterfully shelved during my junior high and high school years: emotions that lurked in the backroom of my mind, affecting my studies, relationships, general wellbeing and self-esteem.
A very stressful summer trip to Poland after my sophomore year of college managed to unlock that vault, a space I didn’t even know existed until then. At first, I didn’t know what was going wrong with me; I was spiraling out of control — bad decisions, bad grades, bad outlook. All I knew was that I suddenly felt like I was drowning in endless ocean waves of sorrow.
During that summer trip, a friend had introduced me to his poetry journal and some of the poems he had written to help him capture and then release his angst. I had realized, “Hey, I can do this, too.”
So, when I turned my pen to my first journal, emotions spread like a raging fire across page after page. It was as if a huge dam had broken inside my mind and all my emotions flooded out. I began filling notebook after notebook for the next four years or so.
Then one day, just like that, the river’s flow stopped.
From that moment on for several more years, I felt a sense of peace and an ability to turn my attention to whatever future path I was on, which turned into 22 years in the Army.
The authors describe poetry therapy as “a form of expression in the same way that art therapy is. It involves the therapeutic use of narrative poems to promote a sense of healing and well-being.” They also credit the Egyptians in 400 BCE with being the first to use poetry for that very reason: to combat internal ills, which in turn can combat external ills.
In the spirit of National Poetry Day, celebrated at poets.org | Academy of American Poets , here are some suggestions for penning your own lines of rhythm and rhyme. Some of this can be found in the Psychology Today article, some from Army health officials’ advice:
· Keep a journal, and jot down any prevailing thoughts or emotions as they surface
· Make note of words that “sing” to you, especially as they pertain to your situation
· Tell stories with the ideas you have captured
· Paint a detailed picture with words that helps others see what you’re writing about
· Read your poems out loud, even if just to yourself; note how different they sound when spoken
· If you have little ones, encourage them to also write
· Write for you, not for others’ approval or praise of you
· Finally, join a site like All Poetry . There, you can write your own poetry for free, read others’ works, comment on them, join contests and groups, get helpful advice, and even publish your works. Or you can join one or more groups on Facebook who celebrate poetry by sharing their original works and reading others’ works.
Psychiatric Times , in a June 15, 2021 article titled Poetry for PTSD and Preventing Suicide , talked with a psychiatrist who wrote a book about the use of poetry to combat PTSD. In that interview, author Norman Rosenthal said, “… the intrusive memories of PTSD are often treated by encouraging those who suffer to actively think about their traumatic memories in ways that decondition their painful responses.”
Poems still have the power to address society’s ills and our own life struggles in ways that other mediums can’t. They can promote laughter and joy and give us a path beyond personal barriers, allowing us to slay our demons.
Poetry goes a long way toward soothing the savage beast that resides in us all.
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Fort Knox News editor discusses the mental health benefits of writing poetry
Reasons Why Writing Poetry is Good for Your Mental health
1) it’s good for exploring your emotions, 2) it’s good for self-expression.
For individuals who are shy or introverted, writing poetry can be a good way to express their inner thoughts. While some people might feel embarrassed about writing down their feelings, this is not the case when doing it in the form of a poem. Because many people believe that a poem is a form of art, it can be easier to express yourself this way. In addition, a poem can help you communicate your innermost feelings to others in a powerful and meaningful way. Many people are able to identify with poems, and this can create a bond between you and your readers.
3) It’s Good for Dealing With Stress
4) it can improve your mood.
In addition to stress, another major problem that many people deal with is depression and/or anxiety. In fact, some individuals experience these issues frequently, and they can make it difficult for an individual to get through the day. Luckily, writing poetry can be a great way to improve your mood and overall mental health . Many people have written about how putting their feelings into words has helped them, which is why it’s not surprising that this activity can help with depression or anxiety. As previously mentioned, using metaphors in poems can help the writer to describe their emotions in physical ways. This is one of the most effective tools for improving an individual’s mood and mental state.
5) It’s Good for Dealing With Traumatic Life Events
6) it can provide comfort, poetry can raise awareness about mental health issues.
Poetry provides a unique way for people to express themselves and connect with their emotions. It can be used as a form of self-expression, to deal with stress and anxiety, improve mood, and deal with traumatic life events. Additionally, poetry can raise awareness about mental health issues and help break the stigma surrounding them. For all these reasons, writing poetry is good for you and your mental health! We hope that this article has inspired you to look into exploring poetry yourself!
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Poetry, the creative process and mental illness
- Published 7 February 2011
Byron was "mad, bad and dangerous to know" according to one lover, Keats was driven to distraction by obsessive love and Sylvia Plath ended her own life.
Depression, madness and insanity are themes which have run throughout the history of poetry.
The incidence of mood disorders, suicide and institutionalisation was 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets between 1600 and 1800 according to a study by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison.
In other words, poets are 20 times more likely to end up in an asylum than the general population.
Science has puzzled to explain it. One recent study found similar brain patterns in artists at work to those of schizophrenics. Another study found that creative graduates share more personality traits with bipolar patients than less creative ones.
As far back as the mid 1800s, Emily Dickinson stated that "much madness is Divinest sense" and Edgar Allan Poe questioned "whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence".
So what is it about poetry that seems to attract those more likely to suffer a mental disorder?
"If you're a creative person, then poetry is a great format because it's short," says poet Luke Wright.
"You can do almost anything with it and it's not like a novel - it's not going to take you years and you have no idea if it's going to be any good."
Poetry allows for the nuance of language and the different way someone sees the world.
"I think you've always got to be interested in a slightly different aspect of the universe to even want to pick up a pen and analyse the world through poetry," says spoken word artist Laura Dockrill.
"I think our brains are big scribbles and always active. Because you can write about anything, you're always on the go - trying to put something to your Velcro head hoping it will stick on.
"Part of poetry is making words do more work that they usually should do and so you're looking for every angle of what a word might mean and so your brain starts working like as well - over-analysing everything and zooming in to minute detail."
Many psychologists have tried to define what makes someone creative or not, and how that can be calculated.
Experiments measuring how many uses a participant could think of for a brick have been carried out but JP Guildford's model of creativity, published in 1950, is still often used. The ideas of fluency, flexibility and originality of ideas, along with the ability to elaborate on them were the four points of his theory.
"Creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions that society places on us," chartered psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon told the BBC earlier this year.
"Of course the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as 'mentally ill'."
So is it mental illness that drives people to art or art that drives people to mental illness?
"A lot of creativity comes from a conflict somewhere in your mind," says Wright.
"I don't think you have to be 'mad' to be a poet but if your mind is alive, then it can produce both positive and negative responses. It can mean wonderful things but it can mean that fitting into 'normal' life is difficult."
With the increase of mental disorder diagnosis, the idea of what "normal" is has become more difficult. Around 1% of the US population have schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects an estimated 4% of adults and bipolar disorder affects 2.5% of people, according to the US Census Bureau .
Some see expressing emotions and experiencing the highs and lows of life as positive things.
"I've got poems about all sorts of dark subjects but in general I'm a pretty happy chap," says spoken word artist and musician Scroobius Pip.
"In my life, I don't sit around discussing murder, suicide and spousal abuse with my mates. I talk about football and normal stuff. It's important to feel an array of emotions and it's great for the mind and soul.
"Though poetry, I'm sure, has a lot of people with mental illness, because if these people are having these feelings anyway, expressing them and writing them down and sharing them can help."
Indeed, the Art Therapy Credentials Board says that art can "reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem".
Out of the Vortex - poems inspired by depressive illnesses is on BBC Radio 4, Monday 7 February, 2300 GMT and then afterwards on iPlayer.
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Waxing poetic may foster health and well-being..
Posted January 16, 2011
The use of poetry for therapeutic purposes goes back to primitive rites in which shamans would chant poems for the welfare of an individual or the tribe, according to the National Association for Poetry Therapy . Its use as a supplemental treatment for mental disorders can be traced back to a Greek physician named Soranus in the second century AD. Today, some therapists use poetry reading or writing to facilitate healing or promote personal growth in their clients. And many more English teachers exhort their students to express themselves in a poem.
On one hand, then, we have a long tradition of viewing poetry writing as a healthy mode of self-expression and a useful adjunct to mental health treatment. On the other hand, there's a prevalent stereotype that poets are mad - and research suggests that this stereotype isn't totally unfounded. Studies have shown that mental illness is more common in people from artistic fields than in creative people from other fields. And within the arts, poets - especially female poets - seem to be the most vulnerable to mental illness and suicide , a tendency that has been dubbed the Sylvia Plath Effect.
Fortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean that writing poetry will be hazardous to your health if you're a more ordinary versifier. Research has focused on eminent published poets, a highly select group who may be a breed apart in numerous ways. If a budding creative genius also happens to think in a distorted or fragmented way, it's easy to see how he or she might be drawn to writing poetry, with its rich opportunities for distortion (unusual metaphors, strange imagery) and fragmentation (choppy phrases, incomplete thoughts). But that doesn't imply that the poetry writing caused a mental illness in our poetic genius. If anything, it's probably the other way around.
For the rest of us, it seems likely that penning a poem won't do any harm and might be some help.
Elegy for a Loss
Back in 1982, the first piece of writing I ever sold was a poem called "The Miscarriage ," which originally appeared in Mothering magazine. The poem was a simple but heartfelt response to my own pregnancy loss. It had been a first-trimester miscarriage, so medically and societally, it was almost a nonevent. But emotionally, it felt like a significant loss, and this poem was my way of mourning it. Apparently, the poem spoke to other women as well, because it has been widely republished ever since, appearing in magazines and anthologies, on websites and blogs, and, most recently, in condensed form in Twitter tweets.
Did writing this poem help me feel better? Absolutely, and that was true from the moment I put it to paper, which was well before I ever showed it to anyone or submitted it for publication. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was instinctively practicing poetry self-therapy as a means of helping myself grieve.
In an article in the Journal of Poetry Therapy , Lea Tufford, a doctoral student in social work at the University of Toronto, argues that poetry writing may help synthesize and release the intense emotions aroused by another, closely related experience: infertility . She notes that capturing difficult emotions on a page may help people get a better grasp on them. When it comes to dealing with infertility or miscarriage in particular, the creation of a poem may also offer the author a different kind of birthing experience.
Ode to Expression
There are a number of reasons why poetry may be particularly well suited to emotional expression. The use of metaphor and imagery may help the writer give voice to emotional undertones that would otherwise be hard to put into words. The use of rhythm may tap into powerful nonverbal responses, much the way music does. And the abstract nature of poetry may make it easier to take a close look at painful experiences, which might feel too threatening to approach in a direct, literal manner.
Over the past 25 years, more than 200 studies have investigated the mental and physical health benefits of expressive writing. This research is rooted in the belief that disclosing emotions - a core component of much psychotherapy - is beneficial even without the aid of a therapist. Studies have shown that disclosing challenging experiences in personal writing can lead to improvements in a wide range of health outcomes, such as self-reported moods and symptoms, doctor visits, immune cell counts, liver enzyme levels, and antibody response to vaccines. These studies have generally looked at structured, narrative prose, however, so it's unclear whether waxing poetic would have similar effects.
But that's not going to stop me from speculating that it might. Like narrative writing, poetry writing can help reframe thoughts about a challenging or unsettling experience, especially when multiple poems explore the same theme from different angles. Ultimately, this may lead to a reappraisal of the experience as less arbitrary and overwhelming, and more meaningful and survivable.
Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health/psychology journalist with a master's degree in psychology. She's author of 14 books and close to 3,000 articles, but her most reprinted piece of writing to date is that first little poem.
Tufford, L. (2009). Healing the pain of infertility through poetry. Journal of Poetry Therapy , 22 (1), 1-9. doi:10.1080/08893670802708068
Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.
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