Understanding the role of personal blogging as a tool to heal, connect and grow
In the rural parts of Guatemala in Central America, tiny handcrafted dolls called worry dolls are presented to people (usually children) who have trouble sleeping well or are chronic worriers. Every night before the worriers go to bed, they whisper their troubles to the dolls and according to legends, the dolls steal the troubles away and let the worriers have a good night’s sleep.
For those of us who live in more digitized times, worry dolls seem to have morphed into internet-enabled computers. An increasing number of people who have chosen to share their personal experiences on a technology-driven platform called a ‘blog’ (shortened form of weblog), say that blogging has served as a form of self therapy for them.
Across cultures, whether we are talking to a therapist, talking to a friend, writing in a private journal or blogging, the very act of putting our emotions into words is believed to have a very calming effect. When we put our problems into words, we are allowing more activity in the logical, problem-solving part of the brain—the prefrontal cortex—and calming down the amygdala, the region that deals with emotions. Therefore we end up looking at the problem from a rational point of view instead of being led by emotion.
There has been a lot of research around expressive writing, in particular, as a tool in therapy. Studies show that when we explore our thoughts and emotions through writing (as expressive writing is defined), it helps us cope better with stress, improve our memories, and generally cut down visits to the physician by half. Something Dr James Pennebaker, the American social psychologist, will certainly agree with. More than two decades ago, Dr Pennebaker began running experiments where people were given a simple exercise—to write uninterrupted for 20 minutes a day for 3–4 consecutive days. Those who successfully completed the journaling exercise were often met with a range of positive results, including improved grades and strengthened immune systems.
Closer home, Magdalene Jeyarathnam, expressive arts therapist and Director of Chennai’s East West Centre for Counseling, encourages almost all of her clients to keep a daily journal. She also finds all forms of creative writing useful in her work. As in the case of her 16-year-old client, who shared a story he had written on his first visit to her centre.
“The story was about tribal people migrating to cities and taking up menial jobs. A local politician exploits the tribals in the city and the story ends with the politician's son, in an unlikely twist, devising a plan to help the tribals rebuild their lives. By the end of it, I had enough material from this story about my young client, who had very recently moved from a smaller town to live in Chennai,” recounts Jeyarathnam. The written word certainly holds much healing power.
In the age of technology, writing continues to be a popular medium of self-expression, but handwritten journals are increasingly giving way to online blogs. Both writing in a private journal and blogging help us vent our emotions and find our voices, but blogging comes with an added dimension.
Apart from being technology-driven, blogging gives us an audience because it happens in a far more interactive medium. It is like a modern take on group therapy, except that there is a no therapist moderating the interactions. When we blog, we virtually appease our need for human connection. We share our thoughts without the fear of being judged, receive comments, respond to comments, and sometimes even learn first hand from the experience of another person across the globe.
Blogging facilitates connections with people that we may never have had a chance to meet otherwise and in the process, dispels the notion that internet friends can never be real. As author and blogger Bharath, who writes with much candor at purisubzi.in, says, “There is this false idea that friendships need proximity and for any friendship to be “real” it has to conform to certain norms of the old. A lot of very good friends I’ve made in the recent past were people I met virtually. As long as the foundations of the friendship are built on shared interests and emotions, it really doesn’t matter where your friend lives.”
Blogging can be particularly helpful for people who face mental health challenges, where a feeling of isolation is common. Although there is no robust scientific evidence to support this, in 2012, a group of Israeli researchers carried out a study on 161 teenagers, all of whom showed some level of social anxiety or distress. The teenagers were divided into six groups; the first four were assigned to blog and the remaining two groups either wrote in a private diary or did nothing. At the end of ten weeks, researchers found self esteem had significantly improved in the bloggers, when compared to the two groups that either wrote in a private journal or did nothing.
By sharing their experiences on a blog, people living with or caring for those with mental health difficulties may not only gain support from a virtual community, but also offer inspiration to those who are facing similar challenges. Something that personal branding coach and blogger Vijay Nallawala experienced when he blogged about his experience with bipolar disorder in 2012. The post was soon flooded with comments and advice. Vijay explains, “Obviously I was not the lone (person suffering from) bipolar (disorder) out there, nothing new in that. But as a result of my writing, I came to know of specific cases as disclosed by very close friends, relatives and so on. There was one common thread about the cases I heard. Virtually none of them were in a stable condition. Many had flatly refused to seek professional help or had quit midway.” This motivated Vijay to create a platform where people could openly talk about such issues. http://www.bipolarindia.com , India’s first online community for bipolar disorder and depression, which Vijay pioneered, contributed significantly to his own healing journey.
Blogging is without doubt a fantastic tool for self-expression and it can help build meaningful connections. However, like every other social media tool, it comes with its share of cautions. A few key things to keep in mind if you are new to blogging:
Remember that the internet remembers. Think twice before publishing a post, because although you can delete it later, the internet may continue to hold remnants of your writing for a long time after.
If you want to share information that is very personal, then it might help to write under a pseudonym or as some bloggers prefer, simply vent your thoughts in a private journal. Bharath echoes this thought when he says, “While my blogging is intensely personal at most times, I reserve writing about the deepest of what I feel to the journal. For me all forms of writing about how I feel is an expression of vulnerability, so I want to be able to keep control on how much I display and to whom.”
Most importantly, if you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, blogging will help you clarify your thoughts and help create a support network—but it will never be a substitute for professional help. It will merely complement the professional help you choose to receive.
Blogs on mental health:
If you are looking for inspiration, here are three Indian blogs that talk candidly about mental health:
https://autismindianblog.blogspot.com: A father talks about the ‘challenging, yet beautiful, experience’ of raising a child with autism. His message is very clear, “I think that learning strategies in Autism are as much experiential for parents as anything else—and if I share, it is with the hope that others will too and we all benefit.”
https://indianhomemaker.wordpress.com: Slices of a homemaker’s everyday life in urban India. Through her writing, she broaches a number of sensitive topics, including dealing with grief, domestic violence and gender bias.
https://swapnawrites.wordpress.com: Swapna’s mother had dementia and Swapna started blogging about her caregiving experiences, mistakes, and lessons learned. When she began helping other caregivers, she also shared her observations as a volunteer. She continues to blog about dementia care realities even after her mother passed away.