The Healing Benefits of Writing

From Bartlett’s Health January 30, 2012

By Jennifer Delaney, N.A., N.C.C

Like jogging several times a week, writing is good for you. As with running, for some people, the thought of putting pen to paper is about as enjoyable as lacing up those sneakers. But, it can improve mental health and emotional well being, and as a result, our physical health. Acclaimed author Louise DeSalvo states, “In controlled clinical experiments where people wrote in a journal only four times a week for 15 minutes (an hour total), describing traumatic events… and the deepest thoughts and feelings about them…[it was] linked with improved immune function, improved emotional and physical health, and behavioral changes.”

When I was 15, I studied creative journaling in Santa Monica, California with Lucia Capacchione, a renowned pioneer in the field. Little did I know that the outpouring of words after my first heartbreak would wind up in one of Lucia’s books. When I see those drawings and words so many years later, I remember the event as though it were yesterday. Writing in a journal has helped me come to terms with what is happening in my daily life—to record and reflect, and ultimately, make changes.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be working through a trauma to experience a benefit. Author Warren Bennis explains, “Writing is the most profound way of codifying your thoughts, the best way of learning from yourself who you are and what you believe.”

When we write, we discover what we believe on an essential level. Beliefs are like a grapevine, and the grapes are the “facts” we gather to support those beliefs. If we want to change essential beliefs about ourselves or our circumstances, we need to pull off the grapes in order to get to the vine. The beliefs we hold about ourselves are often fabricated—steeped in family or religious tradition or based on what other people have told us about ourselves. And we can justify almost any belief, especially when we think we have proof. The good news is that our beliefs are also malleable. We can choose to demote the thoughts we once deemed powerful.

Story telling has value. Stories about our childhood and heritage create an oral tradition that connects people and gives families a sense of shared history. But it is also important to be conscious about where we are investing our energy when we retell stories. Relatives may tell tales about us that represent their perception of us, but we may have grown beyond their stories, or maybe we’re trying to change the behaviors relayed in those tales. While recording the events in my life, I have gradually become aware of patterns. Sometimes, the deeper story isn’t obvious.

When I developed walking pneumonia 11 years ago, several months after my ex-husband and I separated, I knew that while I had followed my truth and did what I needed to do, there was another story going on inside of me: my inner critic was telling me that I was a failure, a bad mother, and lousy friend—unfaithful, untrustworthy, and selfish. My body was reflecting the grief I could not allow myself to feel, and journaling enabled me to identify those deeper, frightening feelings. Writing offered up material I could bring to a counselor so that I could heal physically as well as emotionally. When we write our stories, we reflect upon what we are attached to telling and what we would like to perpetuate.

“Writing acts…as a kind of fixer, like the chemical—the fixer—you use to stabilize the image,” says DeSalvo in Writing as a Way of Healing. Writing down past events not only records our personal history but also brings emotions to light. What is subconscious becomes conscious, and what is vague often becomes clear. Most adults shun feelings the way children avoid bedtime. Woody Allen once said, “I cannot express any anger. That is one of the problems I have. I grow a tumor instead.” Funny man that he is, his jokes hit home.

“People do not become ill despite their lives but rather because of their lives,” explains Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says “No.” “Life includes not only physical factors like diet, physical activity, and the environment, but also the internal milieu of thoughts and unconscious emotions that govern so much of our physiology.”

By writing about our feelings, we discover the source. We don’t seek to change history, but to diffuse and heal the anger that binds us (and blinds us) so that we can live happier lives.

When I was a child, a relative (we’ll call him Doug) teased me ruthlessly. I often told my friends negative stories about what Doug had done to me. Then, one day, as adults, he asked my forgiveness. While the tales of transgression were not forgotten, I found that as I wrote about the past, the dark memories held no sway over me. They had been discharged, and now memories about the ways in which he had brought wonder and goodness into my life rose to the forefront. These happy memories were so much more gratifying to tell. Ultimately, Doug became one of my best friends and remains one of my greatest teachers—the power of story healed us both.

In Legacy of the Heart, Wayne Muller writes, “Our wounds can be vehicles of exploring our essential nature, revealing the deepest textures of our heart and soul, if only we will sit with them, open ourselves to the pain… without holding back, without blame.”

Often people feel the urge to write in a journal when they are going through a divorce, or the loss of a loved one, or when they feel stuck or blocked. Writing helps us to gain insight and to discover inner resources we never knew we had. In her book Writing to Heal the Soul, Susan Zimmerman explains, “When we lose our moorings, when we are caught in currents beyond our control, we need to step out of the maelstrom and look back…We need to step back so that we can leap forward.”

Writing has helped me “right” myself during the most difficult times. Capacchione puts it best when she writes, “The journal is an excellent tool for revealing the self to oneself in the service of personal growth.” Tracking our growth in a journal is valuable. Taking the time to write becomes both a practice and a ritual. Even the type of journal you choose can be part of the ritual.

Whether you’re an old pro or a neophyte, beginning a new journal is exciting. Choose one that aesthetically appeals to you. One of my favorites features Rumi quotes throughout and mystical illustrations. I recommend buying some colored pencils so that you can illustrate what cannot be described in words. If you require further direction, seek out books by Lucia Capacchione or Kathleen Adams, and you will be inspired with prompts and exercises to tap into your emotions.

Often our bodies take the brunt of suppressed emotions – developing maladies when we are too busy or afraid to feel our emotions. I may feel “just fine,” then my lower back will spasm or I develop a cold, indicating I’m ignoring feelings. Writing for my blog and in a journal has given my feelings a safe place to emerge so that I am healthier mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Along with eating well, exercising, and spending time doing things that you love, consider taking 5-10 minutes a day to write a gratitude list or to record your feelings and reflect on the marvel that life is, and the wonder that you are.


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