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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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March 23, 2011

Writing Therapy, or What You Get for the Cost of a Number Two Pencil and a Piece of Paper

By Mark Sisson
91 Comments

Last week’s bibliotherapy post got folks talking about their reading practices – both favorite books and personal motivations. There were even a few professional bibliotherapy practitioners among the mix. Small world it is. Thanks, as always, for the amazing feedback and conversation. Today’s topic – and flip side of reading therapy: writing therapy. Just as we learn through the lens of others’ tales, we gain insight by composing our own. Avid journal keepers out there are already nodding their heads. Anyone who’s faced down deep grief, been flooded with joy, been plagued by confusion and picked up a pen in response is likely recalling the trigger of that moment now. When we’re drawn to fill a page, we’re often surprised at what is summoned. Oftentimes, we don’t truly know our thoughts until we put language to them. That’s the point of writing therapy (or one of them anyway). Words act as a medium for expression and catalyst for clarity – or at least illumination. In writing our experience, we move beyond the factual detail, obvious chronology, and surface reaction. We delve into the heart of the beast and come out changed for the passage.

Writing therapy focuses on expressive writing and its value in processing life experience, particularly trauma and transition. As in bibliotherapy, writing therapy is used both in the clinical setting by trained professionals and in more personal forums. Participants are encouraged to write about their “deepest thoughts and feelings” regarding a particular subject (e.g. their illness, recent loss, life transition). Research results are nothing short of impressive.

On a cognitive note, expressive writing has been shown to increase both the working memory (how we hold information in our minds to connect and use) and academic performance of college students. The benefits don’t stop there. In a study of patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, those in the two groups who were instructed to write about stressful experiences exhibited better lung function and diminished “disease activity” respectively at a four-month follow-up than those in the non-writing groups. Other research shows that individuals with diagnosed PTSD who wrote about their trauma showed lower cortisol levels and improved mood compared to those in a control group. More? Patients with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) who were assigned expressive writing exercises about their condition showed a decrease in symptom severity and an enhanced sense of control over their condition at one and three months after the beginning of the experiment when compared to the control group. Finally, research involving those with cancer has shown benefits in the areas of “satisfaction with emotional support,” fewer physical symptoms, fewer medical visits related to cancer concerns, and an improved quality of life. In the last instance, a single writing session was enough to make a substantive difference for more than half of writing participants even three weeks later.

Researchers have pondered why writing therapy works. Is it a desensitization process of reliving an experience? Is it relieving the stress of previously “inhibited emotions”? (PDF) The most substantial effect at play is perhaps the cognitive process of taking apart our experience and configuring it for the telling. As leading theorist in writing therapy James Pennebaker explains, “The development of a coherent narrative helps to reorganize and structure traumatic memories, resulting in more adaptive internal schemas.” The result? Having given language to traumatic experiences, we’ve in a sense contained their potency. The chronic stress they’ve induced – and the corresponding physiological impact like weakened immune function, systemic inflammation, hormonal imbalance, and impaired cardiovascular function – diminishes.

A week or so ago, The New York Times ran a story highlighting the increasing shift in psychiatric practice from talk therapy to pharmaceutical treatment. Obviously, in crisis times, being able to tell our stories (and receive appropriate support for the process) takes on an acute significance. We traverse through difficult psychological terrain in search of our bearings. Composing our thoughts can offer just that kind of re-orientation.

Writing, more than speaking, presents us with a slower, solitary mode for reflection. Unlike conversations, we’re less concerned with another person’s reaction. We listen perhaps more intently to our own voices and catch glimpses of subtler stirrings. We own our words in a more definitive way.

In the course of a lifetime, however, telling our stories can help us discover our passion, navigate complicated patches, and ultimately define our legacy. We can struggle freely with whatever plagues us, or envision a new and perhaps fearful path. We can delve into the parts of ourselves we don’t consider appropriate for public display. We can elucidate the meaning we’ve found in our years, the rewards and regrets that inhabit our lives in hindsight. It’s no accident that the Alcoholics Anonymous model focuses as much on experiencing and sharing one’s story for recovery.

In his novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien suggests we tell stories in a continuing attempt to grasp and grapple with our life experiences – particularly the more painful and confounding episodes. We carry our experiences with us, he says. How they define us depends in part on how we’ve come to engage them. Our accounts can take different form each time we compose them as we oscillate between honing in and stepping back from various details, angles, and dimensions. We’re creative, accountable witnesses to all our lives have encompassed. Stories help us come to terms with the weight of that role. The gift – and remedy – of a story isn’t a resolution, but the telling itself.

Thanks for reading today. Share your thoughts on writing and what place it has in your life. Has it made a difference to you?

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91 Comments on "Writing Therapy, or What You Get for the Cost of a Number Two Pencil and a Piece of Paper"

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daniel
daniel
5 years 6 months ago

mark, have you always been a writer or has this really unfolded recently(i know you have written books…lol) for you? you have an obvious flair for the written word which is why im asking

grok on!

Mark Sisson
5 years 6 months ago

daniel, regular writing is a relatively new deal for me. I actually disliked writing in school and dreaded any writing assignments, so it’s quite ironic to me that I would define myself as a “writer” now.

Chad
3 years 7 months ago

I can totally relate, Mark. I also dreaded the thought of writing. my mind would literally go blank and it would actually induce stress. Now, I’ve learned to relax and just write. Once I got over my “fear of writing”, it became the exact opposite, fun and therapeutic.

Mark, do you have any tips on organizing your thoughts?

deltadawn
deltadawn
3 years 2 months ago
Great tool, I use it all the time and have done for years. Also helpful to organise and clarify your thoughts in a work environment. A number of years ago, I found myself in a very difficult and emotional situation. Dealing with those emotions, amoungst other things I set up 2 email accounts one for myself, the other to represent the person who created the situation. All well as good, i got it all out, cleared my head of all the horrible feelings and over a period of time managed to put the whole thing in the past where it… Read more »
B
B
2 years 9 months ago

How long have you been writing? This is a very enlightening and inspiring piece. Loved it!

Lauren
5 years 6 months ago

Writing has been therapeutic for me since I was in grade school, but I found out just how much good it can do this past fall when I participated in National Novel Writers’ Month. I based my novel on a trip to Mexico that I took that month for a cousin’s wedding. Writing the true-to-life account made me confront my feelings about my family in a completely new way, and was a fantastic experience.

John
John
5 years 6 months ago

When I returned to physical therapist assistant school at age 57 I was required to take English Composition. At first,as a graduate engineer, I felt it was beneath me. Turned out to be a great experience. A fine pen and a blank piece of paper can work wonders.

shannon
shannon
5 years 6 months ago
About 15 years ago I read a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The most valuable advice I got from that book was her idea of The Morning Pages. That is three pages of long-hand writing, every morning, as soon as you get up. IT has been invaluable to me. I have kept this habit now for over a decade, and I have many hardbound sketchbooks full of this daily writing. I rarely look at my past journal entries, but if I need to find out when something happened in my life, it’s there. I was diagnosed with… Read more »
shannon
shannon
5 years 6 months ago

PS I also teach writing now at a community college, and all these years of daily writing have enabled me to get a few paying jobs as a writer even.

Julietta
Julietta
5 years 6 months ago

I love Julia Cameron, who has a new book now called The Writing Diet. While the diet info is CW, the writing part is wonderful! I started writing hoping to lose weight, and wound up writing myself free from several decades worth of old wounds. Julia is so encouraging and inspirational, and the writing is amazing–I couldn’t believe the way old issues floated up to my consciousness, got examined and then floated away, seemingly permanently.

Julietta
Julietta
5 years 6 months ago

I’ll add that a very important part of Julia’s message about Morning Pages is that it’s for no one’s eyes but your own. She encourages her readers to write and keep writing, misspellings, scratch-outs, illegible handwriting and all. For someone like me, who proofreads my own texts for punctuation errors before sending, this is so freeing! That self-conscious, critical voice is silenced temporarily, and I’m alone with the page.

Primal Pete
Primal Pete
5 years 6 months ago

I credit two people for saving my life – Julia Cameron and Mark Sisson. Having started The Artist’s Way and The Primal Blueprint last summer, my life has changed completely. I can’t live without Morning Pages now!

Jules
5 years 6 months ago

I find writing to be very cathartic. The “old-fashioned way” is best, but I’ve found it very therapeutic to type up emails to people and delete before sending!

Graham
5 years 6 months ago

Yup! My supervisor has definitely NOT received some of the emails I’ve written him. Thank god! Felt great to write them though…

PixieKitten
5 years 6 months ago

I never retain information unless I write it down, I also write in a journal daily and I’m writing a fanfiction… I always feel better after a bit of writing, whether its for education, recalling the day or just for fun! Hurray for writing! xD

LizzyChan
LizzyChan
5 years 6 months ago

i can’t stand writing. I find it so difficult for me, but I do find therapy through drawing. Anyone else get this? Could “drawing therapy” be the same as “writing therapy” but just from the other side of our brain?

musajen
musajen
5 years 6 months ago

I think there could be similar conotations between writing therapy and drawing therapy. Drawing is often a medium used in child therapy. Interesting thing to ponder.

I both write and draw and I find myself in a similar state of flow with both… a very focused concentration (yet relaxed) that shuts out everything else around me.

I get different things out of creative writing and drawing vs journaling though. Journaling is usually helping me work through/vent something specific and fun writing/drawing is a release of pent up creativity.

Either way, I find myself relaxed no matter the medium/purpose.

Primo
5 years 6 months ago

But don´t drawings and writing need to be analyzed by a therapist?

Lucy
Lucy
5 years 5 months ago
Not necessarily, no. Answering only for the writing here (I have a post grad diploma in creative writing and personal development – which is basically writing as therapy): the act of writing something down often helps to get the ‘thing’ out of your head – your brain stops churning it over and over, you can have a rest from it. And yes, the writing a letter/email but not sending it can be very powerful and effective. You can go much further with it, for example editing what you’ve written, using fiction writing techniques, writing it from a different viewpoint (if… Read more »
Danielle
5 years 6 months ago

This was beautifully written and so encouraging.

Keeping a blog helps me get ideas off my chest, and writing about new ideas gets me revved up to take action with them.

It’s definitely therapeutic.

Jenn
5 years 6 months ago
My mom became depressed following my grandfather’s passing several years ago and tried to go to therapy. She ended it because the woman was insisting on prescribing medication, rather than just continuing with talk therapy, despite not having a concrete reason why my mom should take a pill for a situational phenomenon. When she got divorced, my mom went to a different therapist, who combines talk therapy with journaling, letter-writing, and some medication to help her (her depression was far worse this time). While I didn’t always agree with everything he suggested, I agree that writing has an important place… Read more »
David B
David B
5 years 6 months ago

You don’t really know something until you know it well enough to write it down.

I usually use this concept on engineering specifications ( I have customers sick of hearing it) but I live with two published authors (wife,son)that seem to agree.

Kevin
5 years 6 months ago

There is an amazing website called 750words.com that encourages you to write 750 words a day. This is the concept behind the morning pages mentioned above by Shannon. Anyway, I usually find that my dedication to 750words.com usually moves in correlation with my dedication to all the other goals I have in life – diet, fitness, stress, work, family, etc. It’s so great to just enter a “flow” state of writing whatever comes to mind every day, even if only for 10-15 minutes. I highly recommend it to all MDA readers.

Chris G
Chris G
5 years 6 months ago

Any research out there about the differences between writing with a pen and paper versus typing on a computer?

Kevin
5 years 6 months ago
Caitlin
Caitlin
5 years 6 months ago

Yes, I’m sure there is. I was listening to CBC one morning and it was talking about a study that showed University students retain more information when they write it down, as opposed to typing. I’m sure there is more out there.

Alhaddadin
5 years 6 months ago
As a writer myself, I know that there’s just something about committing one’s thoughts to paper (or word processor, as the case may be) that takes away stress in a way that nothing else can for me. Maybe that’s why it’s my chosen profession, though… As a profession, it’s certainly a neolithic one by any account, and of course one can’t do it all the time. My best days are those in which I get a lot of good writing done AND get my requisite dose of sunlight (which, for the record, are two things that are very difficult to… Read more »
Johnny Palmer
5 years 6 months ago

This helps me so much before bed. Feels so good to have lists or a few paragraphs written down especially if you need a plan to achieve something the next day and otherwise fret about it all night

Jennifer
Jennifer
5 years 6 months ago

I’ve always found writing to be very therapuetic. I’m very happy to see this post today, Mark. As a matter of fact, it’s *exactly* what I needed today! Happy writings & primal lifestyle all!

Ravi
5 years 6 months ago
i’ve been getting my share in writing Daiasolgai blog (i’m the main wordsmith right now) but of course – good creative writing is a bit different from the blog post – – the blog being kinda like piano fingering exercises. Useful/purposeful, not bad sounding, sharpens use of language – but the art of writing often lies well beyond blogging… here’s a bit of shameless self-promo (no, there is absolutely no money involved) a short story of mine that an online literary mag tossed up – google this: A Glimpse of All That Is – An episode of Ravi Wells’ passage… Read more »
Kevin Cowart
Kevin Cowart
5 years 6 months ago

Since I now do ALL of my school work on my laptop I have found I actually relish my time doing algebra. I use a Sharpe pen and non-lined paper. I take my time and focus hard on forming all the characters and vigor perfectly till its actually a yoga like discipline and my vigor looks like art.

I know this is a topic of actually writing the content but the act of writing itself is very therapeutic.

Alison Golden
5 years 6 months ago

I write three large pages every day, just stream of consciousness stuff, and find it as useful, if not more so, than therapy except it’s more flexible and far cheaper.

Blogging is another way to write it all out although depending on how you do it and view it, has less potential for digging deep because of the public nature of it.

Primalrob
Primalrob
5 years 6 months ago

i love this. i teach composition and creative writing at a community college, where i get to write with and share stories with people of all ages and experiences…it’s like getting paid twice for the same work.

Ute
Ute
5 years 6 months ago
I received my very first journal on my 10th birthday, and for some time it just sat on my desk and collected dust. But one day I started writing into it… and I’ve been writing journals ever since. I have a whole collection of them sitting in a box. Sometimes I pick one up just to remember a certain in my life. Most of the time it makes me smile, sometimes it makes me think. This writing for passion has led to much more… I started blogging, then became a freelance writer for a number of magazines, and now I’m… Read more »
oak_dweller
oak_dweller
5 years 6 months ago

What a beautifully written piece! This is also exactly what I needed to see today. After having suffered two traumatic over the past year, the words have gotten “caught in my throat” and hang heavy in my heart. I resolved the other day to dust off a journal and start writing it out. This article is so timely. Thanks again, Mark, for the inspiration.

Sharon
Sharon
5 years 6 months ago

Some years back I reviewed movies. I usually gleaned new insight into the movie as I wrote the review. This always surprised me.

TR Hughes
5 years 6 months ago

You’re singing to the songbird, here. Great Article.

I collect beautiful journals – many of which remain blank… beautiful pages of paper that beckon me to write – so full of the unknown and of possibility.

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juliemama
juliemama
5 years 6 months ago
I remember writing at a frantic pace through adolescence..I have no ability to draw or paint. (wrong side of the brain!) I started a journal when I was pregnant with my first child, letters to her essentially, but got too busy to keep up with it. Had a second daughter soon after. I think I need to jump back in, I have had a tumultuous few years,with major health and wellness breakthroughs as well as disappointment and heartache, and to get it all on paper would feel..as if I were simultaneously enlightening others and lightening my own emotional load. I… Read more »
Noctiluca
Noctiluca
5 years 6 months ago
I really don’t consider myself a writer and don’t particularly enjoy writing as a pastime but I do find it VERY useful and sometimes cathartic for sorting out issues. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing out all the pros to an idea on one side of the page and al the cons to the idea on the other. That can really put things in perspective. Sometimes its more of a free flowing brain dump of just whatever needs to come out. I do find that getting it out, saying it how I want to in a way that I wouldn’t… Read more »
bbuddha
bbuddha
5 years 6 months ago

When I was in college I found that writing things down “cemented” them in my mind I took notes in class, never looked at them but writing helped me remember.
Kevin Cowart
I know what you mean about the act of writing being therapeutic, I used to draw floor plans to relax

Peter Ross
5 years 6 months ago

I love writing which is why I started my website in the first place. I have never been good at fiction or even at journals unless I need to work through something but writing on topics I am passionate about is as good a therapy as any. Interestingly I much prefer writing pen to paper, there is something more old world and comforting about it and I find that once my hand starts moving the words almost write themselves. The only problem is that it then has to be typed up to be put online…

Mike Rapoza
5 years 6 months ago
Thanks for the post, Mark. I do not think I would have made it through some periods of my life without journaling. Writing can be extremely powerful for so many people towards so many different ends. For me, I like how writing allows you to see yourself. When Socrates pitched the importance of “Knowing thyself” this is what he meant. Slowing down and becoming concious, aware of the inner workings that make up who you are: your thoughts, feelings, physical senses, and spirit. In my experience it is very difficult to know yourself, in all of your separate components, without… Read more »
Matt Stafford
5 years 6 months ago

Mark, thanks for the high quality thoughtful post. In regards to “composing our thoughts” I might add that your readers try following a basic underlying question/ reply pattern suggested by Dan Roam in “On The Back of a Napkin.”. Makes it easy to arrive at completed thoughts this way. Again, nice post. Thanks, Matt Stafford.

Geri
5 years 6 months ago
Very timely post for me Mark – thank you. I’m beginning a 6-week writing therapy program (at home) for pain relief. The theory, which I totally buy into, is that the subconscious mind creates real physical pain to distract the conscious mind from experiencing painful emotions whether they be anger, shame, anxiety, etc. There’s a very high success rate with this process. In my own life writing has always played a pivotal role. Whenever I couldn’t communicate face to face with my father years ago, as a teenager, writing bridged the gap. When I’ve gone through difficult times in my… Read more »
Ulla Lauridsen
Ulla Lauridsen
5 years 6 months ago

This is what makes Marks Daily Apple so unique – that it recognizes the whole human being, our intellectual and emotional needs, instead of being just a calories and training-site. Wonderful. Love it.

Gabrielle
Gabrielle
5 years 6 months ago
Journal writing saved me from a troubled childhood, PTSD,and helped me find a happy adult life. As Mark says, putting things down on paper helps you get on top of your emotions and motives. Helps you to see when you are repeating stupid emotional mistakes allowing you to correct it. I always write first thing in the morning (didn’t know there was a book suggesting to do that)it gets my head clear and then the rest of the day is very productive. Most of my friends call me several times a week with emotional crisis and wonder why I don’t… Read more »
Tatianna
5 years 6 months ago

Hi That was a great post Mark. As mentioned above by Shannon I too started reading the Morning Pages and writing every day. It is good for the soul, it makes you look back on your own thoughts and it heals your spirit.
Mark, I have a question for you. What kind of advice would you give to a new blogger?

Juliana
5 years 6 months ago

What a wonderful post, and how timely since I just sent you a message about my personal journey with the paleo diet and how it’s helped me shape certain beliefs.

Writing it down, this experience, has helped me understand it that much more, if that makes any sense. I gain clarity and perspective through the very act of writing, which is liberating and calming.

I also plan on teaching spiritual writing workshops at a local yoga studio with a similar premise. Writing IS healing. That’s the beauty of it.

Elaine
Elaine
5 years 6 months ago

“Oftentimes, we don’t truly know our thoughts until we put language to them.”

The answer to men’s age old question about why women “talk so much”.

Debby
5 years 6 months ago

I started a blog for this very reason, Therapy writing and sharing of my life with others. I grew up feeling so alone among my journals that now I discover there is a bigger picture behind writing with courage and honesty. Thanks for this, I enjoyed it!

Ken
5 years 6 months ago

Writing is one side of the tripod that keeps my life going, along with exercise and meditation. They all feed of the other. You’d think spending time at one would take away time in the others, but they all tend to be up or all down. Been blogging for about seven or eight months and the core of several books are buried there.

Melanie
5 years 6 months ago

Once again, a wonderful post! You’ve managed to capture many of the reasons why writing is such an effective therapy, all in one concise article. I really enjoy your writing style and your focus on holistic wellness through books and journaling over the last couple of posts.

Journaling helps us create meaning around our experiences by giving them a narrative structure; humans are a “story species” as Joseph Gold says, and as you state, “Having given language to traumatic experiences, we’ve in a sense contained their potency” That is such an important element for me in why journaling works!

Constant Writer
5 years 6 months ago
Writing has always been my passion. But it has also been a security blanket whenever something comes up in life that’s difficult to deal with. It relieves stress, it lets me use my imagination in a way that no other area of my life allows me to do, and it puts me in touch with some parts of myself that I’m not always able or willing to share with other people. I may not be very good at it, but writing helps even if the only person who ever sees it is me. Thanks for sharing. Writing is therapy, whether… Read more »
Melissa Fritcher
5 years 6 months ago

Getting it out of my head and onto paper has been an immensely powerful tool for me. Of all the things I’ve done to work through a problem, this has been the most effective.

Jimmy
Jimmy
5 years 6 months ago

I gata say Mark, this post made alot of sense and is just what i needed. Started a Man-Diary last night. Its going to help me on so many levels, I got issues haha. Its nice to get my story down, and like you said put my thoughts into words. I just need to find a giod hiding spot. None of my buddys needs to know about my Man Diary…

Thanks man.

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Alexander
5 years 6 months ago
Mark – absolutely fantastic post. And the comments above are amazing! Thought I would let you and your readers know about Penzu (my startup) which was designed specifically for this: writing in private. So much these days is centered around Facebook and sharing thoughts publicly. Writing for yourself (not in a blog!) is becoming more important. Having your own space and time carved out to think and emote freely is undervalued for sure. If you’re on the computer all the time and want a place to write that is private and secure, look no further than Penzu.com. It’s free to… Read more »
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4 years 1 month ago

[…] Writing Therapy or What You Get for the Cost of a No. 2 Pencil and a Piece of Paper […]

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Rebecca
Rebecca
3 years 11 months ago
I’m so blessed right now by this article. I am a junior writing major and have been praying about how I can use my love for writing as well as my love for therapy– talking or writing out how I truly feel. I didn’t even know this field existed until I stumbled upon this. Wow. I am so blessed. I think I have finally heard what God has been calling me to do. I still need to pray more, but I’m excited to learn more about this field. Thank you! Writing for me has helped a lot. I have been… Read more »
Anna
Anna
3 years 9 months ago
Hi Rebecca, Thank you for your post here and I got to read yours by chance. Glad to hear that you are pursuing a degree in writing as it’s been also something I’d love to major in. I also heard of God’s calling asking me to do the same thing – to merely write down my thoughts. Me neither. I didn’t even know that ‘writing therapy’ exsited before I got that thought flipping in my mind when I was doing the writing a couple of hours ago. Keep praying for the project God would love to work for you! Thanks… Read more »
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[…] (Mental Health tip: Write a Gratitude list/New stuff list first thing in the morning or the last thing you do at night to remind yourself of reality and all your blessings or fresh bits! Or research and explore other avenues of therapeutic writing.) […]

Bjorn
Bjorn
3 years 9 months ago

Hello all and Mark,

I was wondering if this also applies to ‘typing’ on the computer. As my handwriting is terrible and tiring(mainly due to ‘small-motor-movement deficiet’.

I’m thinking about making short notes in a notepad I carry around, and eventually write them fully out on my laptop/desktop.

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