A student of mine has PTSD. Pam, 56, is a 31-year veteran of the National Guard who was stationed in Kuwait and is now a virtual shut-in in her rural New England town. Plagued by anxiety and distrust, Pam appeared in one of my online writing classes several months back and has found, to both our amazement, that the chance to explore her feelings on paper is dramatically improving her mental health.
“The paper is such a gift,” Pam tells me on the phone. “It does not judge. I can feel my emotions without as much fear rather than just being numb. My anxiety isn’t so overwhelming. It helps to have a good cry sometimes.” When we began our work together, Pam’s writing was flat, distant, and self-mocking. As time went by and she felt more at ease, her assignments opened up as well, revealing her wicked sense of humor (“The truth is, I like doughnuts better than people”) and the details of her troubled life, including early childhood sexual trauma. By the end of our third online class, Pam had become a markedly different woman. “I’m ready to take my life back,” she says during one of our teleconferences. “All because of writing.”
What is it about expressive writing that heals us so dramatically? Why have our ancestors down through the ages turned to diaries, journals, and letter writing as sources of solace and self-understanding? Scientific studies have begun to unravel this mystery, and the results are nothing short of dramatic. Writing for as little as 15 minutes a day can improve physical and mental health in grade-school children, nursing-home residents, arthritis sufferers, medical school students, maximum-security prisoners, new mothers, and rape victims. Writing about our thoughts and feelings strengthens the immune system, lowers stress levels, and decreases time spent in the hospital. According to one New Zealand study, physical wounds heal more quickly when we do expressive writing. Seriously ill individuals are able to dramatically improve their quality of life by examining their experience in writing and thinking about their disease from a different perspective.
Writing can even help you find a job. In a study conducted at the University of Texas, 50 middle-aged professionals who’d been suddenly terminated from a large Dallas computer company were split into two groups. The first group wrote for 30 minutes a day, five days in a row, about their personal experience of being fired. The second group wrote for the same period of time on an unrelated topic. The contrasting results were startling. Within three months, 27 percent of the expressive writers had landed jobs compared with less than 5 percent of the participants in the other group. After a few more months, 53 percent of those who had written about their thoughts and feelings had jobs, compared with only 18 percent of the others. Dr. James Pennebaker, the author of the study, explains how writing differentiated the two groups. “Those who had explored their thoughts and feelings were more likely to have come to terms with their extreme hostility toward previous employers and present themselves as more promising job candidates,” he says. “When our need for self-expression is blocked, it produces tension.” This tension can deter us from making positive changes in our lives. Pennebaker is quick to add that, in order for writing to have a healing effect, it must be expressive. It’s not enough just to report the facts; we must include how we feel about our experience and what it has taught us.
E.M. Forster said the same thing in different words a century ago. “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” mused the British novelist. “Writing helps you meet your true mind,” agrees Natalie Goldberg, author of the classic Writing Down the Bones and a dozen other books. Indeed, Goldberg has devoted her entire career to helping people access this “true mind” through writing practice. “We spend most of our lives in discursive thinking,” Goldberg tells me from her home in Taos, New Mexico. “I want this. I don’t want that. I have to go shopping. Those kinds of things. Writing practice brings you below the surface to really meet what you see, think, and feel. By going to that lower layer,” she believes, “we become who we are.” Self-discovery is not just for seekers and artists. “I have businessmen reading my books,” Goldberg says. “They tell me, ‘This is about good business.’ In the practice of good business, you have to have integrity. You have to know who you are. You have to know where you stand. You have to know what you want. Writing practice can help all of that.”
It’s a matter of widening our own perspective. “When we begin to tell the story of our experience, we create a coherent, consistent narrative about it,” explains Kathleen Adams, founder of The Center for Journal Therapy in Denver, Colorado, and one of the world’s foremost experts in therapeutic writing. “This helps us to discover meaning, the Aesop’s fable moral of the story. What is the teaching in this? What is the lesson that I am being asked to learn?” Adams likens this perspicacity to having “a good angel on our shoulder.” Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, a poet, professor, and author of The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body and The Divorce Girl, a novel, recalls being saved as a teenager by her good angel. “I was 15 years old,” she remembers. “My parents were having a horrendous divorce, a bit like The War of the Roses. I realized that I needed words to survive, to find some ground of hope, a place where I could stand, to begin to believe that my life wouldn’t always be like this.” Self-expression carried her through this dark time. “Putting words down on the page opened up the tunnel between what was happening on the surface of my life and whatever possibilities there might be for the future.”
Writing about unsayable things is what frees us from suffering in silence. “There are things that people don’t talk about,” agrees Sheila Bender, a poet and essayist best known for her popular books on writing instruction, including Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief. “Writing heals us for the same reasons that so many people are afraid of it,” Bender says. “It comes from a very vulnerable part of ourselves. We cannot heal from grief and trauma, in my experience, without facing that vulnerability. We must allow it to speak instead of disguising it. The transformation lies in the fact that what was swirling around inside of us now has a name and a shape.”
This process is not without pitfalls, however. Writing about traumatic events can sometimes get us into trouble. Dr. Louise DeSalvo, author of Writing as a Way of Healing, advises caution when diving solo into scary waters. “It’s a mistake to expect writing to replace therapy,” says DeSalvo. My student Pam, for example, has been seeing a therapist while taking my writing courses. “There are things that writing can do that therapy can’t and things that therapy can do that writing can’t. Together, they’re a very nice balance. But when dealing with traumatic experience,” DeSalvo stresses, “the simple act of writing isn’t going to do anything.”
Journaling expert Kathleen Adams (who is also a psychotherapist) agrees. “The first premise of all healing practice is do no harm. If writing is making you feel worse instead of better, that’s a signal to stop and take another look.” With such clients, Adams recommends using “sentence stems” that prevent them from getting lost in their pain. “I tell them to begin with statements like ‘Right now I want,’ or ‘Today I feel,’ or ‘What I’m most afraid of is.’ This helps them keep it short and simple. Containment gives us the freedom to write about difficult experiences while taking it in small pieces.”
Mirriam-Goldberg, a cancer survivor who facilitates workshops for people with serious illness, points out that “writing can heal us without necessarily curing us. When I was living through cancer, I wrote a lot,” she says, “but there’s a difference between healing and curing. Finding greater meaning and vitality in your life can be a very healing endeavor, but it may not cure the disease.”
All agree that both writing and healing share a spiritual component, however. Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way introduced millions of readers to the benefits of what she calls “morning pages” — daily freestyle journaling — believes that writing heals by connecting us to a higher power. “The minute you put pen to page, you start to alter your consciousness,” Cameron tells me. “The more writing you do, the more closely connected you are to this higher power. Some people call it the muse. Others describe it as God, the Tao, or simply the universe. Whatever you care to call it, we do morning pages in order to touch base with it, to connect to our own consciousness and to a larger something.”
My student Pam agrees with this. “I don’t buy the ‘higher power’ part. But spirituality is part of my healing, for sure. For me, that means working toward real honest connection with people, and becoming a kinder, more genuine person. The god of connection and the god of self-love are a work in progress for me.” Encouraged by how much more open she’s become since she began writing, Pam is even thinking of tackling a memoir. “I want to write my memoir for justice,” she says, “to show myself — and others — that even though I had some really bad luck, I am a whole person. I am not a victim. I am turning my life around.
“I am more powerful than I think.”
Mark Matousek is a teacher and speaker whose work focuses on personal awakening and creative excellence through transformational writing. The best-selling author of Sex Death Enlightenment; When You’re Falling, Dive; and Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good is working on his next book, Writing to Awaken, due out July 2017.
Ready to get started? Read 9 Tips to Starting Your Journaling Routine.