Writing as Therapy: A Silence That Speaks Louder Than Words

For many people, the writing process might be seen as little more than a functional requirement of day-to-day living - anything from the hastily scribbled weekly shopping list to the apologetic penning of a belated birthday card. For others, however, writing can prove to be nothing short of an emotional lifeline.

The late novelist and playwright Graham Greene once described writing as a form of therapy, a sentiment doubtless shared by countless other writers before and since. Greene’s bipolar disorder led to regular bouts of reckless and self-destructive behaviour, many of which he chronicled in personal letters which were subsequently published after his death. In a similar vein, the mood and tone of Greene’s prolific literary output often tended to reflect the fluctuating highs and lows which he was evidently trying so hard to manage in his everyday life.  

In an article published by the New York Times in March 2012 author Steve Almond examined the increasingly popular role of expressive writing in the field of personal development, concluding that literary endeavour has supplanted therapy as our dominant mode of personal investigation.

People have used writing as a medium for emotional expression throughout the centuries, and for many individuals it appears to remain one of the most effective means of articulating unexpressed or unexplored feelings. Not everyone has a natural flair or propensity for writing of course; indeed, there are many people for whom exposure to the writing process might feel like a pretty daunting or potentially shame-inducing prospect. The aim of therapeutic writing is not one of showcasing an individual’s literary skills - far from it. Writing therapy is about giving silent but meaningful expression to that which has not been, or cannot be, spoken aloud.

The concept of writing as a formally recognised approach to therapy was first introduced by New York psychologist Dr Ira Progoff in the mid-1960s. As a practising psychotherapist who had studied under Carl Jung, Progoff developed what he called the Intensive Journal Method, a means of self-exploration and personal expression based on the regular and methodical upkeep of a reflective psychological notebook. Over the years journaling has gone on to become a popular form of therapeutic writing with a multitude of self-help publications advocating the use of a reflective journal as an essential tool for personal growth and development.

Other forms of expressive writing have also become quite widely recognised for their therapeutic benefits, including poetry therapy, free writing, dream journaling, autobiographical writing, bibliotherapy and a music-based approach to therapy known as proprioceptive writing.

Whatever the form of writing used within a therapeutic context, the objective is not to produce a literary work of art. Far more important than that is the emotional expression lying beneath the words, irrespective of written style or content. 

As well as serving as a useful tool for personal development and emotional wellbeing, writing therapy has been found to assist the recovery of people experiencing mental health issues. Recent research conducted by Dr Arnold Van Emmerik of the University of Amsterdam looked into the efficacy of writing therapy in cases of co-existing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The findings indicated that writing therapy appeared to significantly reduce the presence of PTSD and depressive symptoms in the majority of patients who took part in the study. 

For some individuals the prospect of meeting with a therapist face to face can be extremely daunting and it is precisely when people are feeling anxious or distressed that they are least likely to be able to fully articulate their feelings verbally. The huge technological advances of recent years have led to a number of ways in which therapists have come to change the way they work with clients, and the advent of email in particular has given rise to a further opportunity for writing therapy to advance and develop.  

These days there are countless practitioners who offer their services online, very often via the medium of email. Whilst the obvious cues of non-verbal communication are inevitably lost for both therapist and client in this style of interaction, the depth of feeling expressed by the client, frequently from the very outset of the process, can at times be quite intense. The anonymity provided by an online relationship of this kind would clearly appear to have its advantages; however, it might be argued that email counselling can have certain drawbacks too. Whilst in the face to face or real time therapeutic relationship there will always be that vital spark of immediacy associated with working in the present moment, in the case of long-winded exchanges of email there could be the risk of potential oversight or misinterpretation, not to mention a possible temptation to over-analyse or self-censor certain aspects of the presented material.       

Perhaps writing can be seen to be at its most therapeutic when it is used as a purely private means of personal expression and reflection. Whilst some people may feel affirmed by the experience of sharing excerpts of their writing with a therapist or fellow members of a support group, others might simply prefer to seek private refuge in the writing process as and when the urge to do so arises. Whether a carefully crafted manuscript aimed at future publication or a frantically scribbled imaginary letter destined for immediate destruction, writing can undoubtedly be one of the most powerful and cathartic forms of therapy that there is - and all of it freely available at one’s very own fingertips.       

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Birmingham, B4 7SX
Written by Sharon Hinsull, MBACP (Registered)
Birmingham, B4 7SX

Based at a practice in the heart of Birmingham City Centre, Sharon Hinsull is an experienced therapist, teacher and mental health trainer who, in addition to working with clients face to face, has provided online emotional support to people all over the world. Her practice, whilst firmly rooted in t...

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