Therapeutic Writing can be simply described as the intentional use of writing for a therapeutic purpose – in other words for reflection, growth, stress relief or healing.
It is a valuable tool and importantly it is flexible – can be used anywhere – and it is free!
The incredible benefits of writing are emerging, with research studies demonstrating a range of improvements in physical health, emotional health, intellectual functioning and social functioning.
In terms of our physical health, expressive writing leads to an improved immune system, lower blood pressure, improved liver functioning, sleeping better, improved lung functioning, faster recovery from cancer, and wounds healing more quickly. You fall sick less, and once hospitalized you recover more quickly when you write.
The psychological benefits are equally impressive. Generally people’s depressive and anxious symptoms decrease and their feelings of wellbeing improve; for those who have experienced trauma, their posttraumatic stress symptoms, particularly these related to intrusion and avoidance, are reduced.
Expect higher cognitive functioning – and improved working memory – essentially that’s our ability to think about more than one thing at a time; better academic results, improve sporting performance, faster re-employment, improved concentration and decision-making and reduced absenteeism from work.
Social benefits are also significant – writing helps you become a better listener and encourages us to talk more and make better use of social connections. It even improves our relationship.
It is clear that the benefits of expressive writing are extensive. But how exactly does it work?
Well, the exact mechanism is still unclear, but there have been a number of proposed explanations.
Mechanisms by which expressive writing might work:
Venting emotions is discredited. Although it may make someone feel better. It doesn’t lead to any health benefits.
CONFRONTING PREVIOUSLY INHIBITED EMOTIONS
Reduces the stress from the inhibition.
The development of a coherent narrative helps to re-organise and structure traumatic memories, leading to a more effective processing of experiences.
May involve extinction of negative emotional responses to traumatic memories through repeated writing about them.
There is supporting and contradictory evidence for each of the proposed theories.
It is likely that the mechanism of ‘how writing is therapeutic’ is complex and results from a combination of these factors.
Labelling and cognitive processing seem to be more credible and accepted. Writing something down turns it from an ‘unknown’ to a ‘known’, therefore reducing hyperarousal. Changes our relationship with the event and associated feelings.
Expressive writing is generally associated with an immediate increase in negative feeling. This short-term distress does not appear to be detrimental or to pose a longer-term risk, but it is important to be aware of it. Remember that stress is not inherently bad, particularly if it’s moderate and predictable, in which case it builds up emotional resilience.
The good news is that these negative feelings rarely last for more than an hour. However, it is important to remember that the process of writing about strong emotions is not a walk in the park and it’s not always pleasant. It’s hard work and you need to be gentle. And if the writing brings up some things that you want to address or feel you need support with, then don’t hesitate to contact someone.
Importance of self-monitoring and mindfulness – push yourself, but only write about something if you’re ready.
Whether you are leading a group writing workshop or holding a one on one session with a client, there are a number of key principles of using writing with clients that should be applied across the board.
Take a pen and paper. Observe carefully what is going on around you – the noises, the smells, the objects. Observe, but don’t let your story-telling mind take over. If you notice your mind drifting to past or future events, simply observe these thoughts, set them aside and return to direct observation. Ask yourself ‘What am I feeling right now?’ and write down thoughts, feelings, bodily perceptions and emotions. Notice how your body feels, particularly any areas of stress or any aches and pains. Write down everything that you observe in the present moment.
Write about a stressful experience.
CAUTIONS AND LIMITATIONS
Writing isn’t beneficial to everyone at all times, and always needs to be considered in context.
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