Why Writing Can Boost Mental Health
Writing, whether or not you ever share it with anyone else, has been shown to have therapeutic, healing potential
Therapist Josh Hogan shares his own experience, as well as what he might encourage in his clients
In a previous article, I talked about the benefits of art in relation to mental wellbeing and how it can be used to aid communication in therapy. Here I specifically want to talk about writing, one of my own preferred outlets, and how I think it can be of great service when one feels stuck in life.
Despite the fact that I can go long periods without penning a single word, I have always considered myself a writer, and believe this art form to be a great tool for healing in my life. Since qualifying as a therapist, I have encouraged numerous clients to give writing a try, whether it’s a thought journal, blogging, penning a letter to themselves / loved ones, or poetry. I’ve said before that there is a sense of achievement in finishing something, and a one page letter to the relative you haven’t contacted in years can be just as meaningful as the 500 page novel. Describing and naming an experience or a feeling is considered valuable in all forms of therapy; committing it to paper adds a layer of ownership to it, one that allows you to see and touch what you are talking about.
In the 1980s, James Pennebaker arguably pioneered expressive writing as a form of therapy by asking trial participants to write as much as they could about a past trauma for 15 minutes a day over four consecutive days. They were instructed to include their very deepest thoughts and feelings about the traumatic experience, to think about how it may have impacted their relationships with others, as well as their identity and their future. Strikingly, in the months after the study took place, participants were found to pay significantly less visits to a doctor when compared to a control group. Pennebaker theorised that by allowing traumatic thoughts and feelings such great expression, physiological stress brought about by disinhibition (of thoughts and feelings) is reduced, leading to a potential boost to the immune system.
Several studies have since been conducted into the effectiveness of writing for individuals with various mental and physical health conditions, such as PTSD, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and impaired immune system (Smyth et al, 1999 / Murray, 2002 / Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). Murray found that expressive writing helped participants to find meaning in their experiences and see things from a new perspective (Murray, 2002). Meanwhile, Tartakovsky found that it can help lead to important insights about oneself and one’s environment that may not otherwise be reached (Tartakovsky, 2005).
Undoubtedly, there is a certain ‘uncorking’ that happens when one starts to open up about trauma, where feelings, thoughts and images that may have been buried for years come to the surface as if for the first time. Most therapists will hope that this happens through talking, but in some cases, when you are sitting there in the room, no words come. The client who has become dissociated from their trauma on an emotional level may believe that there are not enough words available to describe their experience. Expressing things in the written form is different to saying them out loud, especially if you are given permission to keep the resulting piece to yourself. Writing for oneself with the possibility of that work never being shown to another soul is a particularly powerful practice. You can say whatever you want, without having to worry about style, grammar and spelling mistakes. You are free to express your deepest, perhaps most painful thoughts without the prospect of external judgement looming over your shoulder.
Years ago I managed to write my own life story. After 300 pages, about fifteen drafts and months of editing, I ended up with a book I felt proud of. I had given the first twenty-five years of my life a narrative and a meaning beyond what they might have had otherwise. Now when I want to remind myself of how I felt at twelve years old, I can read about it, instead of just scanning my memory. This somehow makes it easier to make a direct comparison between my different selves at different ages. I can see in physical form how far my life has come, what has changed.
There is an argument to be made that giving a whole life one narrative in written form risks excluding all the other possible narratives and meanings that might have been. Life is messy and contradictory, after all, and who knows how I’d feel about my younger self now if I’d edited the story in a different way. Still, I believe that the task I embarked on with the story was catharsis in its purest form, helping me to own and finally move on from the past.
I don’t expect my traumatised clients to finish anything like a 300 page novel. As any writer will tell you, completing a novel takes a gargantuan amount of patience and time. To reiterate what I said earlier, a simple letter to a relative can contain as much meaning and catharsis. Whatever we choose to say, however we choose to say it, the pen and the paper are among man’s oldest tools designed for self expression, giving clarity to trains of thought that may otherwise go unheard or misunderstood.
Josh Hogan is a verified welldoing.org therapist in London and online