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23 Mar

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?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. 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.

    Melissa Fritcher wrote on March 24th, 2011
  2. 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.

    Jimmy wrote on March 25th, 2011
  3. 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 It’s free to use and works entirely in the cloud!

    – Alexander

    PS. If you like the product send me a tweet and I can send you a discount code for Penzu Pro!

    Alexander wrote on March 29th, 2011
  4. 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 through numerous tragic events in my life so far and writing things out and processing them as I go has helped immensely.

    Thank you again! Blessings!

    Rebecca wrote on October 25th, 2012
    • 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 for reading. Be blessed.

      Anna wrote on December 28th, 2012
  5. 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.

    Bjorn wrote on December 27th, 2012
  6. Thank you very much Mark for posting something inspirational like this. I got greatly moved when I just tried it before reading your post.

    It really is a wonderful experience to find out who you really are bit by bit, the you that lives in a hidden mask because of some social labels you have no choice but to wear; plus roots of all sorts of problems we have had… or merely to revive the true meaning of living on this earth.

    Thank you again.

    Anna wrote on December 28th, 2012
  7. There’s a series of workshops on a process called Intensive Journal.

    It sounds similar to what you’re talking about here. I’ve been wanting to attend for some time, and it’s finally coming to my home town, so I’m really excited to participate in it!

    secret agent girl wrote on April 20th, 2013
  8. A few years ago I experienced a major trauma (it involved a bank, lawyers and well, it’s convoluted). The legal case was going to drag on for years. My response was to start a website and then I added a blog. I have always believed in writing therapy.
    Reading through the article, and having read Pennebaker a little while back, got me thinking about what happened just after I started writing the blog. Funnily enough, I developed frozen shoulders – extremely painful and debilitating.
    Today, I think it’s because I was blogging about how to deal with the legal problem – I was contacted by numerous people whose stories were the same as mine. The longer I blogged, the more painful my shoulders became. The physiotherapist likened it to me carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.
    A few weeks ago the bank settled with us out of court; my blog posts became reflective, I wrote about how I felt about it all – and the shoulders improved. They’re still not totally good, but, then again, I still haven’t been truly honest with myself as to how I really feel about what happened.

    Rosie wrote on April 29th, 2013
  9. Hey Mark, I am a 10th grade student in Brazil writing an essay about how J.D. Salingers The Catcher In the Rye is a therapeutic journal (is that the correct term by the way?). So far, I know I would like to quote Oftentimes, we don’t truly know our thoughts until we put language to them.”and “Writing therapy focuses on expressive writing and its value in processing life experience, particularly trauma and transition.”

    I would like to know if you came up with these, and everything else in your text, or if you got them from someone else and forgot to cite them?

    Thanks for the help.

    Franco wrote on August 27th, 2014
  10. Does anyone recommend a poetry and creative writing therapy program that provides legitimate certification?

    Amanda wrote on November 26th, 2014
  11. Mark, thanks for another insightful post. The range of comments in response shows the powerful effect of ‘writing therapy’ on a person’s holistic sense of being; that very elemental idea of ‘breaking the skin’ on the pool of oneself talked about by Seamus Heaney.
    There is growing recognition of the impact of writing both on cognitive processing and emotional development, as well as its importance in nurturing and satisfying inner creativity. To this end, there is now an excellent course in the UK offering therapists, writers and ‘boundary crossers’ in related disciplines the opportunity to explore their own writing impulses, and how writing might help others therapeutically. This is the Certificate, Diploma and MSc in creative writing for therapeutic purposes offered by Middlesex University in London, through the Metanoia Institute. Read comments by a diverse range of students at:

    shelleygreenwood wrote on July 20th, 2015

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