When you were younger, did you keep a journal of everything that was going on in your life and your feelings about it? Turns out, research shows that this is a habit you should keep throughout your life. Journals, logs, questionnaires and prompts are used as tools to help patients with trauma and stress.
Life can sometimes bring us some complex situations and writing about them can help us process them. It helps us to go beyond just blaming someone else for the difficult circumstances and to see what we can learn from what happened or what is happening. Maybe we can even see the part we played in perpetuating stress and improve our behavior for the future.
Expressive writing can be shared with an audience, but it is not necessarily crafted for a specific audience. The main purpose of expressive writing is for catharsis and self-expression. A very popular therapeutic writing prompt is “free-write.” This is when you set a timer for a certain amount of time and write nonstop about your stream of consciousness. Another common type of exercise is to write a letter to a person who brings up bad feelings for you. You might not necessarily send it to them, but you write out what you would say to them or tell them how they made you feel. Your practitioner can also recommend other expressive writing prompts and exercises. The process brings your subconscious feelings to your awareness. When they are brought out, acknowledged and examined, they no longer have the same negative power on your thoughts.
The benefit of exercising expressive writing is not really in the pen and paper, but it’s in the mind. Therapeutic writing is about preparing yourself to face the painful feelings you are trying to avoid. When you begin one of these exercises, make sure you are in a place where you feel calm, safe and won’t be disturbed. You may want to make a cup of tea or light your favorite candle. During this process, you might even cry while writing, and you should allow yourself to so. The insights gained from writing are comparable to the verbal, guided exploration of certain psychotherapies. Talking into a tape recorder also has a similar benefit. Do this in a way that feels comfortable for you, but don’t shy away from the tough issues.
Studies show that therapeutic writing can benefit the physical and immune function in patients with conditions like HIV/AIDS, asthma and arthritis. In an exciting study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, 107 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients wrote for 20 minutes on three consecutive days. Seventy-one of them wrote about the most stressful events of their lives. The remaining patients were placed in a control group and wrote about an emotionally neutral topic like their daily plans. Four months after the exercise, 70 patients from the stressful writing group showed improvement on objective, clinical tests when compared to the 37 control patients. For both diseases, those who wrote about stressful events improved more and deteriorated less than the patients who wrote about neutral topics.
In another study at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a team of researchers found similar results among HIV/AIDS patients. The researchers had 37 patients write for four, 30-minute sessions about negative life experiences or about their daily schedules. Afterward, patients who wrote about experiences measured higher on lymphocyte counts that gauge immune functioning, than the controls who wrote about neutral experiences. The boost of lymphocytes had disappeared three months later, perhaps indicating a need for consistency in this therapy. The findings suggest that writing reduced patients’ stress through a release of anxiety. When they were able to write about their worries, it structured their feelings and reduced their stress in that situation.
Although writing does not pose any long-term risks to people, it should be done carefully just like any other treatment. Some people do better with writing than others. Get regular check-ins with a professional to make sure you are on track with your healing. Writing out your thoughts can also help you track the progress of your treatment. As you do work on issues, the language and interpretation of events reflect your progress.
Murray, Bridget. “Writing to Heal.” American Psychological Association. N.p., June 2002. Web. 25 July 2016.