“One can enjoy the health benefits of writing without the emotional costs associated with writing about trauma. The physical benefits of writing about one’s best possible self were equal to or better than writing about trauma.” —Laurie King
Writing and Healing
Writing your true story can heal you, both physically and emotionally. Expressive writing, writing that integrates your emotions and insights with memories of events that occurred in your past, has been shown to improve the immune system and have a positive effect on such diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, and asthma.
Self-disclosure and confession have long played a role in relieving stress and promoting health. As an ancient church sacrament, confession ritualizes the unburdening of shame and guilt, enabling a person to move forward in a positive way. In the confessional, we find words to speak the unspeakable—halting sentences woven through with shame and guilt, grief and regret. Confessional words pierce through the inner darkness, opening our hearts to the light of hope and forgiveness. Through confession and unburdening, forgiveness can begin, for ourselves and others.
Psychotherapy has been called the modern day confessional. Mimicking the priest in a darkened, closed confessional, Freud positioned himself in the shadows of a dimly lit room—a sacred, private space in which clients could reveal hidden truths. His treatment rule was that they were to speak freely about whatever arose in their minds. This was a revolutionary, even dangerous, idea in Victorian times, when repression and suppression of thoughts and desires were the order of the day. In therapy, as in the church confessional, deep feelings, worries, and the secrets of the soul could finally be formed into words.
During the 1990s, Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, began to wonder if writing would offer the same relief as spoken disclosure. For a decade, he and his colleagues investigated the therapeutic benefit 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 one such experiment, members of the control group were instructed to write lists or plans for the day, while 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.
Even though Dr. Pennebaker is a psychologist, the intensity and depth of the trauma expressed in the subjects’ stories impressed and surprised him. Students 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 and many cried, yet almost all of them were willing to participate in the study again.
The researchers found that it is indeed healing to translate our experiences into words, to put events and feelings into perspective using written language.
In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker discusses how 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 comprehension need to be integrated in our minds with memories of the events that occurred in order to create a new perspective. Pennebaker compares the effects of writing to psychotherapy, where emotional disclosure and the release of inhibition are part of the healing process, along with the ability to integrate new insights into current behavior and beliefs.
As far back as Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) psychologists have suggested that repression and suppression of emotion contribute to stress and emotional and physical imbalance. In a primitive fight-or-flight system, powerful chemicals surge through the body to protect an organism against a perceived threat. When the threat, or stressor, has passed, the body can retain the pattern of tension and vigilance, especially if there has been ongoing or severe trauma. When stress is released, the immune system responds in a positive direction, toward balance and ultimate health.
In 1999, an article by Joshua Smyth et al. in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the effects of expressive writing on arthritis and asthma sufferers made a rousing splash in the writing and psychological communities. In their 2002 book The Writing Cure, Smyth and Stephen Lepore present more recent studies showing that while writing about trauma and negative emotions causes emotional pain and distress for a short period, both mood and physical health improve. Furthermore, writing about positive emotions and a positive future also lead to improvements in physical as well as emotional health.
The research also showed that our personalities affect these benefits. If a person tends to withhold emotions, writing about negative experiences will likely have a positive effect on that person’s health. If a person generally focuses on negative feelings, writing about a positive experience or a happier life event may have a beneficial effect. Therefore, there is no single “right” way to use writing as a healing tool.
As research about the healing aspects of writing continues, we learn more and more about how to write ourselves well. Here is what one of my students, Clare Cooper Marcus, wrote about her experience with writing as a healing practice:
I’m lucky—writing comes easily to me. Between the ages of five and eleven, I attended a small country school run by five eccentric women who insisted that we all write at least one essay a week. It was assumed that we all could write, and we did.
Fifty years later, my body and emotions thrown into turmoil by a diagnosis of breast cancer, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to record my feelings in a journal. I wrote while sitting, wracked with anxiety, in the hospital waiting room. I wrote about my fear of death, of pain, of not-knowing. I wrote sitting up in bed after my mastectomy, I wrote in the hospital garden, drinking in nurturance from the hundred-year-old Valley Oak tree, the squirrels running up its rotted trunk. I was writing myself into hope.
Writing was for me a form of Zen practice. It helped me stay in the present moment, aware of each feeling and insight arising, then falling away, like leaves drifting by on a stream of consciousness. Writing at such a time was an exercise in mindfulness. Although I also spoke my feelings out loud, to friends, to a therapist, to members of a support group, it was writing that enabled me to go deeper, to give my soul a voice. I believe it was writing as much as medical treatment that enabled me to heal.
Writing Yourself Well Techniques
In his research, Pennebaker found that when subjects 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 likely. Cognitive or thinking words (because, reason, effect) and words of self-reflection (I understand, realize, know) created the most 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.
Causality occurs when an action or other stimulus leads to an outcome: This happened because that happened first. There is no causal linkage between the two events in the following sentence: The queen died. The king died. But in the next example, you can see a connection: The queen died. The king died of grief.
Your first efforts at writing memoir may be filled with confusion and negative or unintegrated emotions. Write an emotionally difficult story several times in different ways. After a while, you may find yourself writing from a positive perspective—telling, for instance, what you learned from the event, or how a negative experience made you change your life in a positive way. This furthers your process of self-understanding and healing.
Writing emotionally rich and integrated stories:
- Makes thoughts and events more concrete;
- Leads to greater self-knowledge;
- Releases emotional constriction and stress;
- Strengthens the immune system;
- Leads to short-term changes in the autonomic nervous system; and
- Provides a template for the writer’s future story.
Think about the stories in your life that connect into a meaningful whole. What do you need to do now to bring together the frayed threads of your life? Could these secret stories free you from the trap of silence?
Writing does not need to be difficult or complicated. Think of it as talking on paper, as Michele Weldon, author of Writing to Save Your Life, suggests. She goes on to say, “When you are writing to save your life, your feelings must be uncensored, raw, and unfiltered by the fear of reception. No one is judging you. No one else has to read what you have written. You are writing to save your life.”
Give yourself permission to speak, to find your voice, to write. Let yourself enter new and unexplored territory. For twenty minutes, write a story you have never put into words before. Afterward, journal about how you felt writing it, and your reaction to seeing it in words.
Write into acceptance, support, and encouragement. Let your voice be heard.
1. Think about an important event in your life that led directly to another important event or to a person coming into your life. For instance, if you hadn’t gone to the game that January night, you wouldn’t have met John, whom you dated and eventually married. Write about what led up to this turning point in your life—the causal factors in this story.
2. Set your timer and write for ten minutes about a traumatic event, looking for an understanding, a causal meaning to that event that doesn’t create self-blame. For instance, if you think you were raped because you wore a short skirt, that is self-blame. But if you realize that you didn’t pay attention to your intuition and take a safer route home, that is an insight that can lead you to take better care of yourself in the future. Perhaps you didn’t hear footsteps behind you because you were upset, you just had a fight with a friend, or you were sick. Integrating what happened into your overall understanding of yourself and the world can help you live your current life with more freedom and happiness.
3. Write about your best future self: Who will you be in one year? Five years? Imagine yourself living as you want to, but based on some aspect of reality and real possibilities that might emerge from who you are now.
4. Make a list of positive, healing words that make you feel good.
5. Write about an unexpected way in which you were blessed with healing, such as an experience with an animal or a garden.
Trauma at Home
As I mentioned earlier, when Pennebaker asked people to write about painful experiences, many of the stories that emerged related to traumas resulting from events in the outside world—acts of nature, car accidents, rape by a stranger, war. Many others had to do with trauma and abuse at home—intense stories of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; alcoholism; battering; date rape—abuse and trauma inflicted within what is supposed to be a safe place, at home, within the fabric of family and friends. This kind of injury is all the more insidious because the victims, particularly when they are children, often do not realize that what is happening is wrong. It is simply the way Mommy and Daddy act; this is the way it is. Even mature adults feel that nothing can be done about the depression, the sense of life not being what it should be. A person in this situation learns to feel and think that change is not possible and that life has few options. This conditioning has been called learned helplessness, an unfortunate term that has been used derogatorily in reference to women. It is not helplessness that is learned but a pattern of fear and immobilization resulting from the reaction of body and brain to trauma. This complex physiological and psychological reaction to trauma renders the person unable to make changes or to take appropriate action.
Whether a trauma occurs at home or out in the world, it has a lasting effect on the body and psyche. Some therapies address the physiological effects—the body remembers as well as the mind—while other therapies focus on the mental or emotional scars that affect people throughout their lives. Such hidden wounds can lead to destructive repeating of the trauma, which Freud called repetition compulsion. In addition, trauma victims may develop various kinds of phobias that can cause them to severely restrict their life and activities out of fear.
In my work, I have seen people with both kinds of traumas—the in-the-world kind caused by an event such as an automobile accident or earthquake and the kind caused by long-term abuse and neglect. Both can result in depression, work problems, anger, and unstable relationships.
According to Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, “Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory. Traumatized people feel and act as though their nervous systems have been disconnected from the present.” This means that the effects of the trauma follow the person throughout life, causing problems such as a strong startle reaction, sensitivity to loud noises, fears, phobias, nightmares, and depression.
In the last few years a great deal of research has been done on the physiology and chemistry of the brain in relation to trauma and emotion. This research is complex, but what is important to know is that trauma can affect people without their realizing it. For instance, people who have been traumatized may have recurring dreams or tell stories that sound to the listener as if a terrible event is being replayed, as if a phonograph needle is stuck in the groove of the trauma. It is known from studying the brains of traumatized people that traumatic memories are stored differently from regular memories and that they are harder to get rid of or resolve.
Writing, along with other treatments, is a way to reprocess these memories. We need witnesses to our trauma, including our selves. Writing helps sort out what happened, when, and why, and gives us a way to think of ourselves not only as victims but also as people who have talents, passion, and much to offer the world. It is possible to heal trauma and live a fuller, more expressive, and freer life.
All humans live through painful experiences. Sometimes we have written about or processed these memories and put them in perspective, and sometimes we have not. When you start writing your family stories and the stories of your life, you may unearth upsetting memories and discover unresolved issues from the past. You may have hesitated to write your memoir because you think there might be ghosts in the closet. Let sleeping dogs lie, you say. Let the past stay the past, and move on. But you’ve tried that, decades have passed, and the old ghosts still whisper in your ear.
Writing your stories is an opportunity to put these old ghosts to rest. If need be, you can approach certain memories and issues indirectly rather than confront them head on. Pennebaker told his subjects that if a topic was too painful, they should write about something else.
Take care of yourself. Be your own best friend.
- Write with full expression the things you have not said that need to be said. Write without stopping for fifteen minutes. Afterward, you can tear it up or put it away.
- Write in the present tense, from the child’s point of view of living at home. Parents. Siblings. Birth. Death. Friends. Grandparents. Gardens. Thrills.
- If this is too intense, switch to third person—tell the story about this other person who suffered using “he” or “she” instead of “I”.
- Write about the best day of your life, and what made you happy.
- Who were the witnesses in your life who helped you have hope, who saw you, who gave you nurturance—such as aunts, uncles, neighbors, friends, teachers, ministers.
- Write a history of each of part of your body. Write from the point of view of that part—e.g. “I am your heart. I beat constantly, keep you alive.…etc.”
- How do you know your spiritual self—where, how, when have you sensed this part of yourself.
- Write from the adult survivor point of view now—your strengths, successes, lessons.
- Write about the wisdom of the generations—what do you hold from your foremothers and fathers? What is their legacy?
- What is your legacy? What seeds have you planted on the planet that will endure?