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
On the face of it, this seems obvious. It’s cathartic to express yourself, whether through talk therapy, writing to heal, or speaking into a tape recorder.

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? 

31 comments

  1. Karen, I love how you present information that is backed by research. As a nurse I appreciate evidence based treatments and strategies. I am preparing to do some memoir writing, inspired by the book The Artist’s Way. What is interesting is I had a dream that I did this and was much kinder to myself after reflecting back on my life. I’ll let you know how it goes when I get into the actual writing.

    1. Thanks, Molly. Evidence-based information is so much a part of my background and my mind that I don’t have any choice about including it when I’m writing. It is, I fear, what makes fiction writing a pipe dream for me. 🙂

      I’m so glad you’re going to do some memoir writing. I have two recommendations if you’d like, not to cause analysis paralysis (another course, another book before starting) but just in case – Julia Cameron, author of the Artist’s Way, has another book where she basically guides you through writing your life story one chunk at a time, along with lots of great thinking about retirement. The book is It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond. The other, if you don’t mind a bit of self-promotion, is the memoir series on this site. I think they predated you. Here’s a link to the second post in the six part series – https://profoundjourney.com/memoir-writers-greatest-fear/

      Do let us know how it’s going, Molly. Exciting times!

      1. I just came back to read your response to my comment, Karen. I will check out your post but I am excited to tell you that I am reading that very book you suggested written by Julia Cameron. It is perfect for me at my stage of life and I’m finding it so helpful. That is what I am using to do the memoir writing and to follow her ‘Artist’s Way’ prescriptions. It is a fantastic book! I raced through it initially and now I’ve gone back to read each chapter weekly and do the exercises. Though I did start writing Morning Pages right away and have been doing that now for a few weeks.

  2. I love this post, Karen, and I have done this type of writing in the past. I was in a mental health centre years and years ago. While there I had appointments with a psychiatrist, various courses in the occupational therapy department and problem-solving groups. I also had free time to watch tv, read or write, go for walks in the hallways or outside depending on privileges. What helped me most was writing. I am not sure if that was just because I enjoy writing or because writing is my first and best form of expression to use. Anyway, some of my free time was used sitting either at a table or curled up on the couch writing. I wrote about what brought me there, and about what the professionals had said. It was a dialogue with myself really – an external thinking process on paper. It did help! I won’t say I was miraculously healed of the trauma (that took many years of weekly therapy sessions with a therapist, who was an MD) but it healed me to the point I could leave the mental health centre no longer a mess. I do credit the writing I did as equal if not more important than any of the other things I went through there. Those appointments and classes were merely jumping off points – the writing is what healed me enough to leave. I notice after reading your post that I intuitively followed the various steps and stages to make sense of what I was feeling and thinking to work through the crisis that brought me to that point.

    1. Hi Susan,
      I can think of no better validation of writing to heal than your story of the difference this kind of writing has made in your life. That’s a very powerful, testimony Susan. Thank you for sharing it.
      Karen

      1. You’re welcome, Karen, I share things here because I know I am amongst my tribe and it is safe to do so. 🙂

  3. Yes! Writing about my traumatic experiences has definitely helped me. Helped relieve the pressure of endlessly going over it in my mind. I use my blog a lot for this (hehehe…no surprises there…I have been accused of “putting it all out there”) with the intention of not only helping myself but also to help others that may be going through something similar. At the very least they will know they are not alone in their dealings and feelings. I’ve also written letters (that either weren’t or could never be sent to the recipient) as a means of getting my feelings out of my head and onto paper. It goes a long way towards healing, in my opinion. And good to know the research supports this. Thank you for this post Karen!

    1. Thank you, Deb. I appreciate the honesty of your blog and admire your courage in putting it all out there. You have a wicked sense of humour about it when you do share, so I’m guessing you’ve done quite a lot of processing of stuff in private in order to get to that point. What a great place to be.

      1. Thank YOU Karen. I laugh because it beats crying (which I have done my fair share of, believe me). Yes, I have done a lot of private processing of the former shit-storm called my life. And it’s a great place indeed, that I am in now! It hasn’t gotten old yet.

  4. Karen – I journal all the time and find it helps me deal with many things. I’m going to try the specific 4 steps of healing journalling to deal with the aftermath of my cancer treatment. There was a long-term, permanent side effect that occurred that I’m having trouble emotionally dealing with… I’m a bit better, but I definitely need more healing. Did you sense I needed this and that’s why you posted it?!?

    1. Hi Pat – Yup, I wondered if you might be at a point where this process would help. The research into the helpfulness of expressive writing for breast cancer patients is still in its early days and is quite mixed, but there are a few accounts online of women who found it so helpful that they started expressive writing workshops with other breast cancer survivors/thrivers.
      I wish you much clarity and peace as you continue to heal, Pat.

  5. Fascinating post, Karen! I hadn’t previously encountered this area of research. Writing to deal with emotional trauma makes total sense to me. Writing for physical healing is less intuitive for me and now definitely has my attention!

    1. The impact on physical health surprised me too, Donna. It probably shouldn’t have given what we are learning about the mind-body connection, but I guess I hadn’t really been sure there was much to that theory. Now I can see that there is!

  6. I just left a comment that seems to have completely vanished. Anyway… here’s a shorter version: I have found that writing down my thoughts and feelings when I’ve gone through various rough patches to be very cathartic. Very interesting to find that writing not only promotes emotional healing but physical healing too.

    1. Oh, that’s frustrating. Sorry to hear that your comment vanished, Janis. Nothing showed up on this end but if the strange little gremlins send it my way, I’ll figure it out. Thanks for taking the time to give it another go. And glad to hear that writing to heal works for you too.

  7. I have always found that writing helps me to purge emotions. I can get caught into negative thinking and it can be a downward spiral if I don’t get rid of it. Writing helps.
    I’ve always been very careful however to avoid saying anything that could come back to bite me later if it was read or heard by the wrong person. Maybe it defeats the purpose of writing unencumbered, but it has forced me to examine my emotions and choose my words carefully.

    1. I’ve always been careful too, Joanne, but lately I’ve been trying to get closer to my true feelings and I find that requires writing with the absolute guarantee of privacy. What I’ve done is tell my family and friends that I want my journals destroyed without being read if I die. Making that stipulation has given me the freedom to write anything and I’m finding it’s making a big difference in helping to purge the emotions. I find that when I’m choosing my words carefully, logic overtakes emotion and I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling if my life depended on it. But that’s me. If your approach does help you purge emotions you’re probably more in touch with those emotions than I am. I suspect most people are 🙂

  8. Fascinating. As a creative writing teacher (for adults) I’ve seen how writing opens up individual’s sense of self and memories, and in the end, helps with self-confidence and joy. Writing openly can be a wonderful spiritual experience.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Pamela, and especially for sharing your thoughts. There’s nothing better than hearing from someone who has extensive firsthand experience.

  9. I have a hard time believing the physical benefits of writing, but have a lot of experience with the mental healing. Or, at least, feeling better after letting it all out. I have had a lot of tough periods in my life. During some of them, I emailed with my best friend. Super long emails. I can’t thank her enough for being my sounding board during those years.

    At the same time, I wrote things down in Word documents. Extensively. Those notes could easily make up a memoir, or two. My current memoir only has room for glimpses into these periods.

    And, then there is my diary which I have written every day, for over 25 years. So, yes, I do understand the benefit of writing, although in my case, it mostly sounds like complaints. 🙂

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      I missed your comment. Sorry to be delayed in replying.
      It sounds as if venting actually works for you; that you don’t need the full process of both positives and negatives in your writing, and of looking at a situation from multiple perspectives.
      Or maybe it’s that you just naturally do that as part of your venting? I’m guessing you’ve been writing for a while with one or more memoirs in mind. If that’s the case, do you think you are more careful to be balanced in your writing to heal?

      1. Hi Karen!

        Yes, I have been writing for a while, but never with a memoir (or more) in mind. My idea was to write all these diaries for 1) my children and grandchildren (which will never happen) or 2) when I am retired and bored, to look back at my life (which might never happen either). And, between you and me, I didn’t even look at my diaries for this memoir, since I already have so many blogs and notes from that period (not looking at the notes either BTW; rereading the blogs wore me out and “messed up” the manuscript) and, they are in Belgium.

        Venting does help me a lot, whether it is on paper or to a my friend/mom/husband verbally. And, yes, I am able to see things from different perspectives and consider “all sides”. Not sure why, though. Maybe from all the traveling. It did create an open mind. Generally speaking.

        1. Wow, Liesbet. Don’t you ever dare say that you are a lazy writer or beat yourself up for not editing your manuscript faster. When you look at all of the writing you do and don’t even use, it’s incredible!

          I just started reading David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding Diaries – and tossed it aside because I’m not interested in reading about his early druggy days. But I digress. Sedaris has 156 journals. I’m betting you could so easily give him a run for his money. Any ideas how many journals you have filled in 25 years of writing?

          1. I have done so much writing, Karen, and I have to come to terms that not all of it will see “daylight”. 🙂 Life is too short to be a full-time writer and a traveler!

            I have no idea how many journals I have. Sometimes, it would be one a year (using one of those one-page hard cover agendas), other years, four or five notebooks were filled. The more space I have, the more I write. So, you can imagine why my daily diary writing went from ten minutes a day when it was in a paper agenda, to 20 minutes a day now, when I write them digitally… with no other restrictions than getting sick of typing on my iPad, or my eyes falling shut from sleep. 🙂

            I have two tubs full of diaries at my parents’ place, so I guess that’s about 75 or so.

  10. Nearly two decades ago, I co-authored and published a poetry chapbook titled “Groping Our Way Beyond Grief” with four other writers. Each of us had used writing poetry as a means of healing from a life trauma. Later, we collected our poems in the book that I mentioned. As well as writing poems, for years I have journalled as a way of working through difficult emotions.

    Writing to heal has been a technique used by counsellors and other human service professionals for quite a few years. Thank-you for describing it so well. In the qualitative inquiry field in academia, there is an approach called “autoethnography” in which researchers tell their own story. Many have used this scholarly writing as a therapeutic device.

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude,
      Thanks for sharing your personal experience with writing to heal. I love the title of your poetry chapbook. Groping is the perfect way to describe the healing process and writing, for those who enjoy it, an ideal way to do that difficult work.

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