The Power of Writing to Heal — Excerpt from The Power of Memoir
Forgiveness means letting go of the past.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in healing. As I grew up, I learned that I was the third daughter in my multi-generational family to be abandoned by a mother, and I was desperate to break a pattern that I’d seen cause much misery and pain.
I’d watched my own mother and grandmother fight since was little; when I was an adult, my mother refused to let anyone know she had a daughter. The pain of these realizations haunted me, but I found relief through creativity; playing in a symphony, painting, and reading books. I devoured fiction—in those days only famous people wrote memoirs—trying to find some kind of code that would help me live my life.
And, I kept a journal. Little did I know that one day there would be programs all over the country about therapeutic journaling, art therapy, and bibliotherapy.
As a “wounded healer” I became a therapist, and learned how the sacred and mysterious process of psychotherapy facilitates healing. Being a client while working as a therapist gave me a perspective and a deep respect for the healing process. It was clear that sharing stories in the therapy hour helped people break through walls of silence and shame into a previously unknown freedom of expression, healing wounds long suppressed and buried and wordless.
During those years, I poured out the feelings, thoughts, drawings, and the stories of my life into those journals, gathered them into boxes, and put them away for a long time. But the process of finding words and even writing stories was a way for me to see past the darkness and find some light throughout the losses and traumas I experienced from a mother and grandmother who turned out to be mentally ill.
I often felt alone in the struggle, but at least I had my journal. One of the therapies I experienced had us write the dark stories of our lives, the ones we’d been trying to escape. The leaders insisted that we must write all the ways we had suffered or been traumatized in exact detail. While this was grueling and difficult, it paved the way for resolution and forgiveness later in the process. I experienced profound relief and appreciated the insights of digging deep into tough truths, and having others understand and witness me for the first time. Thus was born my certainty that writing needed to be a part of the healing process, but there was no scientific evidence to prove it—only my experience and the stories of others who were journaling.
The Research on Writing That Heals
A few years ago, studies about how writing influenced the process of healing began to be publicized in the press. The studies talked about how the power of using words, particularly writing, helps to heal emotional distress, trauma, and various physical ailments.
Recent developments in technology have made it possible to study how patterns in the brain are affected by words, and these studies are still yielding their results.
The Early Studies
As a therapist, I’d learned about Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen, who carried Reich’s work into Bioenergetics, Arthur Janov who created Primal Scream therapy, and other body workers like Peter Levine and Babette Rothschild. Their theories have to do with how trauma and stress are suppressed in the body, causing emotional and physical reactions that talk therapy doesn’t touch.
These therapies include special breathing and body oriented techniques to help the client release the pent up emotions that have been lodged in the body and in the unconscious mind. Most of my clients had been severely abused as children, and seemed stuck in their bodily and emotional memories. I thought it was important to explore different ways to help them, so I studied these alternative approaches in the field of holistic health as I searched for integrative ways of helping people to change their lives for the better.
So it was with eagerness and surprise that I discovered the research showing that writing true stories about significant and meaningful events in their lives helped people heal not only mentally but physically. For example, in 1999, an article by Joshua Smyth in the Journal of the American Medical Association discussed the positive effects of expressive writing on arthritis and asthma sufferers. Discovering that writing was a factor in healing physical illnesses and trauma was big news to the medical and psychological community.
Dr. James Pennebaker’s Broad Research
As I searched for more studies, I discovered the work of Dr. James Pennebaker, the chair of the psychology program at the University of Texas. In the 1990s, he began to be curious whether writing about important and painful feelings would offer the same relief as talking. He and his colleagues investigated the therapeutic benefits of writing in various settings and with a large range of populations, including prisoners and crime victims, arthritis and chronic-pain sufferers, new mothers, and people with various physical illnesses, across different social classes and demographics.
During the experiments, members of the control group were instructed to write lists or plans for the day. The expressive writing group received the following directions:
For the next four days, I would like you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different traumas each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.
Both groups wrote for fifteen minutes on each of the four days of the study. The intensity and depth of the trauma expressed in the subjects’ stories impressed and surprised Pennebaker. They wrote about tragic and traumatic events, such as depression, rape, suicide attempts, child sexual and physical abuse, drug use, and family violence. They often wrote of powerful emotions associated with these stories. Sometimes they left the sessions in tears, but they eagerly continued the experiment. No one suffered adverse effects of the writing, and many reported emotional relief at finally writing out deeply buried secrets. The research results showed a significant number of reduced doctor’s visits, and improvements in health markers. In another study in the group who wrote, there was a significant increase of the T-cell count, showing improvement in the immune system.
In his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker discusses the ways that writing about emotional events relieves stress and promotes a more complete understanding of events. He concludes that simple catharsis, the explosive release of emotions, is not enough. Feelings, thoughts, and a new point of view need to be integrated with memories of an upheaval to create a new perspective.
Writing a story and putting events and upheavals into a narrative helps to create meaning and understanding about stressful or traumatic events. Writing is similar to psychotherapy, where emotional disclosure is a part of the healing process, but writing is a solitary activity, done alone, whereas in the therapy office, there’s another person, the therapist, whose presence may affect the content and delivery of the story. Writing may yield different and surprising material that was not shared in therapy.
Second Generation Studies on Writing and Healing
In their 2002 book The Writing Cure, Smyth and Stephen Lepore are the editors of a series of studies. This next generation of research covers more topics: depression, recovery from breast cancer and other questions the researchers developed after the first studies.
These studies showed that while writing about trauma and negative emotions causes emotional pain and distress for a short period of time, soon both mood and physical health improve. More revealing was the research by Laurie King showing that writing about positive emotions and a positive future lead to improvements in physical and emotional health. A further surprise came when subjects wrote about someone else’s trauma—the results were nearly as positive and those who wrote about their own traumas, paving the way to consider fiction writing as a healing path as well.
The research also showed that people’s personality styles affected the benefits measured. If a person tends to withhold emotions and to be more stoical, writing about negative experiences will likely have a positive effect on that person’s health. If a person focuses on negative feelings much of the time and ruminates, writing about a positive experience or a happier life event may have a beneficial effect.
Trauma Research and the Brain
Trauma and its effects on the immune system, body, and mind have been studied by many scientists and psychologists over the years, and now the research is focusing on studying the brain and how it processes trauma.
Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain, writes about the parts of the brain in a style that invites everyone to understand this important organ in the body. The brain is composed of several “brains”: the older, reptilian part of the brain, the old mammal brain, and the neo-cortex, or higher level brain, which distinguishes more recent evolutionary human functioning.
Scientists are now able to study how the brain fires and responds under certain stimuli, especially the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are part of the limbic system and have to do with fear responses and their regulation. When we are triggered by fear, even subliminally, immediate hormonal and nervous system responses occur that were originally designed to and trigger the fight or flight hormonal reactions to save our lives. The amygdala reacts to fear stimuli, which sends messages to the hippocampus which is supposed to regulate the responses of the amygdala, but in conditions of ongoing trauma, the fear response seems to be “hard-wired” into the brain, making it difficult to process into regular memory that would allow the event to be put into perspective.
Traumatic memory is different from regular memory. It’s as if the traumatic memory is a phonograph record needle stuck in a groove, keeping the upsetting events fresh and recurring.
“The amygdala’s emotional memories…are indelibly burned into its circuits, “ says le Doux. “The best we can hope to do is to regulate their expression. And the way we do this by getting the cortex to control the amygdala.” This means that the cognitive part of the brain needs to overcome the emotional responses that overwhelm the person. This is where using words comes into the picture.
Matthew Lieberman’s Brain Scan Studies
Matthew Lieberman, an Associate Professor at UCLA, studies how words can change the processing of strong emotion in the brain. His research acknowledges the previous work of Pennebaker:
The insight that putting one’s feelings into words can have mental and physical health benefits was captured experimentally in work on disclosure through expressive writing…In the 1980s, Pennebaker began a program of research (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; Pennebaker, 1997) in which participants were asked to write about past negative experiences on four successive days and these participants were found to have visited the doctor less often over the following half year compared to those who wrote about trivial experiences. Lieberman’s research goes on, however, to use new MRI imaging to measure how words affect the amygdala. In one study, the researchers were surprised to see that the right side of the brain was processing language, when usually it’s the left side of the brain that processes words. It could be interpreted that both sides of the brain are integrating when language is used to process strong emotion.
Studies involving the brain and writing are being done by Liebermann and other researchers to show physiological changes in the brain that occur when language is used as a tempering mechanism for strong emotion.
When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses. As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.
Bessel Van der Kolk and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome
Bessel van der Kolk, Director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, is internationally known for his extensive research in the field of PTSD. He has written many articles and books on the subject of Post Traumatic Stress and how it can be healed.
In his article, “In Terror’s Grip: Healing the Ravages of Trauma,” he lists some elements of PTSD: repeated re-experiencing of original trauma through physical memory triggers, an attempt to avoid the memories by withdrawing from the world, and extreme vigilance and startle reaction. The altered function of the brain, due to trauma, “causes the memories to be stored as fragments rather than being organized into the higher brain’s autobiographical self.” He acknowledges the work done by Pierre Janet, a colleague of Freud’s, who wrote extensively about trauma, and the need for witnessing and the restoration of narrative memory.
To help heal trauma, van der Kolk says, “It’s important to help people with PTSD find a language for understanding and communicating their experiences.”
For writers who want to use writing to heal, we can see that the research supports what many of us may have felt intuitively for a long time—that writing your true thoughts and feelings about something upsetting releases them from occupying your attention.
Writing for Better Health
To summarize the research:
- Knowledge is power. Most people who want to write feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or shy to put pen to paper, their minds spinning with inner critic messages which can be a symptom of past traumas. But if you write the experiences directly and with the simple language of truth, then your higher brain processes are stimulated to integrate and eventually release the effects of stress and trauma.
- Though writing may be uncomfortable at first, after writing four times for fifteen minutes, intrusive memories may begin to recede, and you start to develop a new perspective. You may need to write the scene more than once or use different points of view such as the third person instead of first person “I.”
- The studies seem to agree that a certain amount of “downloading” of negative experiences is helpful. Expressing the unexpressed through words labels the feelings and helps the neo-cortex, the newer and more evolved part of the brain, integrate them into normal memory banks, removing them from the ever repeating timeless quality of traumatic memory.
Your Words Matter
Pennebaker’s research went beyond exploring trauma to investigating the effect of certain words on the immune system. When writers used a large number of positive words (happy, good, laugh) along with a moderate number of negative words (angry, hurt, ugly) in their writing, health improvements were more likely to increase. Cognitive or thinking words (because, reason, effect) and words of self-reflection (I understand, realize, know) created the most emotional resolution. So if you want to experience the greatest healing benefit from your writing, pay attention to the emotional content of your words, and keep writing about a particular memory until you have causally linked the events with your feelings and integrated feelings and thoughts.
Causality means that one thing is linked to another; a particular stimulus leads to an outcome—this happened because that happened first. There is no causal linkage between the two events in the following sentence: George went to the store with a gun. Bob died. But in the next example, you can see a connection: Because George went to the store with his gun, it went off and killed Bob. There is a link between the first phrase and the second. There is meaning and causality.
Another one: “That day I couldn’t know that because I wore the pink dress, my life would never be the same.” In this example, the narrator is linking the pink dress with events to follow. This is an example of integration, which allows the separated events of a life to be linked into a narrative with a plot. In this way, we weave a sense of meaning about what happens to us. Fragments of disconnected events serve to maintain anxiety and symptoms of stress, but connecting events and finding meaning helps us to create a sense of self that is calming and comforting.
Witnessing and Being Witnessed as a Healing Process
One of the ways that we break out of the isolation and secrets that are woven into many traumatic experiences is to bring these secrets out of the darkness and into the light. If we are witnessed, if we are received with positive empathic regard, we are able to more quickly heal.
Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, has written many books on child abuse and how to heal its effects. Her work about witnessing can be directly applied to our writing practice for healing.
Alice Miller and Witnessing
In her books Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and The Truth Will Set You Free, Alice Miller writes about the horrors of child abuse and how the wounds of such abuse continue to affect people in adulthood. She believes that for victims to heal, the secret, shameful stories of childhood must be revealed and expressed to a compassionate, enlightened witness.
An “enlightened witness,” is someone trained to fully understand the painful story we need to tell and sees us with compassion and empathy. The enlightened witness sees us as the whole, beautiful being that we are, not just someone who was wounded. Miller says, “Therapists can qualify as enlightened witnesses, as do well-informed and open-minded teachers, lawyers, counselors, and writers.”
So many children suffer in silence, afraid to reveal to anyone else the truths of how they live behind the closed doors of the family, when disobeying family rules of loyalty can lead to punishment. But Miller says that when we were young, if someone, either from outside the family or a family member, knows of our abuse or unhappiness, and if they respond in some way with compassion or kindness, we’re less likely to become trapped in the darkness of the trauma. Some of us might have been lucky enough to encounter an aunt, uncle, grandparent, or teacher in that role:
“A helping witness is a person who stands by an abused child . . . offering support and acting as a balance against the cruelty otherwise dominant in the child’s everyday life.”
When we write for ourselves, we witness ourselves in a new way, and when we share our work in a group, usually the first stage of trying out our writing on the world, we are witnessed by them. Be sure to have a trustworthy group as part of your support team. It’s important to have partners in the creative endeavor with you.