Expressive writing can help us heal

Bibliotherapy, or the practice of prescribing self-help literature to patients with mental health concerns, has been used by GPs for some time – but many therapists have seen the benefits that reflective writing can also bring.

We may recall keeping a journal as teenagers, pouring our troubles out to our ‘Dear Diary’, to be read by another upon pain of death! ‘If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way’, wrote the poet Seamus Heaney, and getting things down on paper can be a powerful experience. What’s more – if we can let words flow uncensored without conforming to form, structure or grammar, we can produce illuminating results, revealing thoughts and feelings that may have been lying just beneath the surface of our consciousness, a bit like opening a locked door and shining a light inside.

A study carried out by Nottingham University in March 2017 has produced fascinating results which indicate that writing about difficult things in our experience can even help heal wounds more quickly.

Psychologists subjected volunteers to a 4mm puncture wound to their arms, then asked them to write about a traumatic experience or unresolved conflict in their lives, over several days. Findings suggest that there’s something about writing about emotional experiences that seems to have an effect on our immune system. Speaking on Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’ mental health programme in April 2017 when the findings of the survey were reported, Professor Kadvita Vedhara said ‘if people have traumatic or unresolved issues, the process of managing them places not only a psychological, but also a physiological and autonomic load on the body, so the opportunity to write about them is a cathartic process, releasing the negative mood, and enhancing the role of the immune system’.

The beauty of reflective writing is its simplicity: all you need do is find a quiet spot, pick up a pen and start writing. A good exercise to begin with is a timed ‘stream of consciousness’ non-stop write for five minutes. Write whatever’s in your head, trying not to plan, or censor yourself. Thinking about it turns on the inner-critic! Give yourself permission to write anything. It’s impossible to get it wrong! Whatever you write will be right for you.

This ‘writing therapy’ has many overlaps with ‘talking therapy’, in the process of ‘getting it out’ – stirring the mud at the bottom of the pond, taking a journey and seeing how it unfolds. In counselling, you are sharing your story with a trusted other, contained by professional boundaries. Captured on the page, words do not need to be read by anyone – you can even choose to throw them away. But stories can emerge in both processes, like items that have been tucked away up in a dark attic, brought down one by one into the light to be examined, or pieces of a jigsaw that can slowly be fitted together and given meaning. A letter written and never sent can be cathartic and create a shift to enable moving on. Expressive writing within a small group can be profoundly moving for people to read aloud what they have written, and have it heard by others. This can feel like a validation of feelings – perhaps for the first time.

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