Writing to Heal: How to Do It Right
Do you keep a journal only or mostly when you are unhappy? Ever wondered if venting on paper actually helps, or if it simply mires you deeper in the muck? There have been numerous research studies on writing to heal and the evidence is pretty clear. Evidence for Writing to Heal
James Pennebaker is a psychology professor. Back in 1986, he asked some students to spend twenty minutes a day for four days writing about the biggest trauma or the most difficult experience of their lives. Other students served as a control group, writing about their dorm rooms.
For the next six months, Pennebaker monitored how often students visited the campus health centre. The group writing about trauma made significantly fewer trips to the centre.
Since then, scientists have looked to see if expressive writing, as Pennebaker calls it, helps people deal with a whole host of diseases and situations from cancer to anxiety about upcoming surgery.
A meta-analysis of all research studies shows a small positive effect in every area except for one. It turns out that expressive writing provides consistently positive results if you have a physical wound that needs healing.
Write hard and clear about what hurts.Ernest Hemingway
How Writing to Heal Might Affect Your Body
I don’t see myself volunteering for a writing and wound healing experiment. What happens is that volunteers do some expressive writing and then, days later, they are given a local anesthetic and a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm. The wound is typically 4mm across and it takes a couple of weeks to heal. Researchers found that the healing was significantly faster for those who had engaged in expressive writing beforehand compared to the control group.
Similar results were obtained when this study was done with healthy senior citizens, aged 64-97. Eleven days post biopsy, 76% of the group that had written about trauma had fully healed compared to 42% of the control group. This is considered particularly noteworthy because older people are at risk of poor healing.
So physical health seems to improve, whether a little or a lot, when writing to heal techniques are employed. We don’t know the reason yet, but the prevailing theory is that writing to heal reduces stress, leading to better sleep and fewer stress hormones interfering with the hormones that aid in healing.
How Writing to Heal Might Affect Your Mood
Writing to heal can also help you to feel psychologically better.
What keeps you from being fully alive is what you are most afraid to go through.Lawrence McCafferty
However, there are a couple of big caveats to this claim. The first is that writing to heal may actually make your anxiety worse if you are someone who is reluctant to explore your feelings. The process is not for everyone.
The second caution is that you have to go all the way through a writing to heal process for it to be helpful. Just venting, or writing about events over and over in the same way, does not work and may actually make things worse. Something to think about the next time you tell yourself the same negative story in your journal.
A Writing to Heal Process
Know when to write
Most writing to heal research is focused on people suffering mental or physical trauma. Pennebaker cautions that if the traumatic event happened within the last two to three weeks, it may be too soon to deal with some of the emotions the trauma has awakened.
What happens to us is not as important as the meaning we assign to it. Journaling helps sort this out.Michael Hyatt
Fortunately, you don’t need to be at the level of trauma to benefit from a writing to heal process. If you are dreaming, worrying, or thinking about a situation often, it’s a good time to write.
Write for yourself
Some people turn writing to heal work into published memoirs. You may be one of those people, but please don’t start with that intention. Find a safe place and write knowing that no one will ever see your words. There’s no other way to go as deep as needed. And because it’s just for you, forget about editing.
Write for long enough
You need to write for long enough to experience a change in how you are viewing the situation. For Pennebaker’s subjects who had suffered trauma, it was twenty minutes a day for four consecutive days. But Pennebaker says that it doesn’t have to be twenty minutes and the days don’t need to be consecutive. Do what works for you, keeping in mind the writing instructions below.
Follow the writing instructions–at least the first time
In Pennebaker’s book, Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, he provides the following instructions:
Day One: Write about the event itself, how you felt when it was occurring, and how you feel now. You may also want to consider connections between the event and other parts of your life. For example, how is it related to significant people in your life? And what’s the connection to who you have been in the past and who you’d like to be in the future?
Day Two: Write about the same trauma or upheaval as the day before, or write about a completely different one. Do the same as yesterday but also include how you might be responsible for some of the effects of the trauma.
Day Three: Write about the same topic, a different aspect of the topic, or something entirely new. Don’t repeat what you’ve already said. Explore the topic from different perspectives and in different ways. Write about what you are feeling and thinking. How has this event shaped your life and who you are?
Day Four: Look back at the previous three days of writing. In today’s writing, tie up anything you haven’t yet confronted. What are your emotions and thoughts now? “What things have you learned, lost, and gained as a result of this upheaval in your life?….Do your best to wrap up the entire experience into a meaningful story that you can take with you into the future.” (p.40)
Use prompts as a framework
If the writing to heal process appeals to you but you need a bit of help getting started, I recommend Diane Morrow’s site. A physician and teacher, Morrow offers 58 fascinating prompts. She says they are for you “if you have experienced loss, are dealing with grief, have been diagnosed with a life-altering illness, or if you’re simply facing ordinary trouble.”
Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to split open.Natalie Goldberg
Signs that Writing to Heal is Working
Psychologist Joshua Smyth says that, “To tap writing’s healing power, people must use it to better understand and learn from their emotions.” You will know that you are making progress if:
- you feel easier about the event than you did before writing.
- your writing includes ‘he’ or ‘she’ not just ‘I’; in other words, you’ve looked at the event from other perspectives.
- cause-and-effect words can be found in your writing. These words, like ‘because,’ ‘realize,’ and ‘understand’ suggest that you are making sense of the event.
- you have linked feelings to the experience.
- there are both positives and negatives in your writing. The negative emotions will be there, but the more you describe positive emotions, such as how you’ve grown as a person, the more likely you are to be healthier after the writing.
- you have told a complete story. In her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise DeSalvo explains that, “A healing narrative renders our experience concretely, authentically, explicitly, and with a richness of detail.” (p.57)
Do you use a journal to write about difficult times? What do you think of Pennebaker’s process?