Perhaps I overstate my case. If writing isn’t THE best therapy. It’s a very good one. And an excellent article at Harvard Business Review sheds some light on why.
I am not alone in believing that writing can have a stress reducing and revelatory effect. A research psychologist at the University of Texas, James Pennebaker, has conducted a number of controlled experiments that confirm the effectiveness of writing as a therapeutic tool. He found that writing about thoughts and feelings arising from a traumatic or stressful event—what he calls expressive writing—helped many people cope with the emotional fallout of the events, and they experienced less mental and physical damage in the long run.
Pennebaker also found that writing had long-term effects on diseases such as asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and arthritis. It turns out that when people write (or use dictation) approximately twenty minutes a day for three to four consecutive days (preferably at the end of the day), they will likely have fewer medical visits (half the rate of the people who don’t write or use dictation).
I worked with writing for many years in therapeutic settings, and can add some first hand observations on the therapeutic value of writing. Have you ever imagined a story in deep, immersive detail and then sat down to write it, only to find that all you have are a few shredded images and shades of emotion? (This is, incidentally, why writers learn to dream on the page, as dreaming done off it is largely wasted effort.) We’re wired to believe that our thoughts are whole and complete. But my experience is that our minds befuddle us with mere fragments of ideas. It’s only when you sit to write them down that the thoughts take on concrete form in words. Writing is, in the most literal terms, thinking.
The problem with those fragmentary, illusory thoughts is that the mind can turn them over and over forever without reaching any useful conclusion. If that’s true with stories, it’s twice as true with worries. Bad memories and fears for the future sit in our mind, half born, but filling us with anxiety. Which becomes stress. Which in turn becomes all of the chronic physical conditions noted above, and many more.
The act of writing our worries down forces them to take form. 9 times out of 10 we realise the worry has no form, or that missed essential facts make it irrelevant. Your mind is worrying on a trip to the dentist that will be terribly painful. When you write the worry down, you realise the dentist won’t hurt at all, and will actually relieve the pain you are already feeling. On the occasions the worry is real, writing it down can help place the problem in the context of our life as a whole, and achieve kinds of healing that are much harder when the fear is unexpressed.
All writing has therapeutic value, but sitting to write about traumatic experiences can be in itself traumatic.
You have to be careful about using the tool, however. Pennebaker cautions that writing about trauma may initially trigger temporary distress. He also emphasizes that the timing of the writing matters. Studies have shown that people who write about a traumatic event immediately after it has occurred may actually feel worse after writing about it, possibly because they are not yet ready to face it. Pennebaker advises his clients to wait at least one or two months after a traumatic event before writing about it.
Therapeutic writing is best done with some guidance from a fellow writer, or if alone, at a time and place where you can banish the negative emotions after you have raised them. I do my own writing practice in the early morning, when the clear light of a new day can burn away feelings of anger, hurt or other suffering that the “morning pages” might bring up.