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

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?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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