Writing to let out feelings has long been a valid and useful therapy. Psychologists and therapists have recommended that people express their deepest feelings privately in writing for years now. Yet, healing the mind is just one beneficial effect of writing out the bad stuff. It’s been discovered that writing also helps the body recover from illness and prevents future disease. We're taking a look at the practice of healing through writing.
Mari L. McCarthy was a high-powered executive, running her own consultancy company and traveling the world to meet clients. Her work was her life and her life was her work. Until she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She attempted to keep up her demanding schedule until she was forced to close her business. Her body was failing.
Eventually she lost most of the function of the right side of her body, including her writing hand. She was living on a cocktail of drugs and spending a fortune on treatments. When a friend told her about the benefits of journaling, Mari was cynical but thought that anything was worth a try. Her friend told her about Julia Cameron’s book, "The Artist’s Way". In it Cameron extols the virtues of writing ‘morning pages’, three hand-written pages of stream-of-consciousness writing as a kind of brain dump.
Mari had nothing to lose so she picked up her pen and began writing with her left hand. She wrote about memories and feelings. Things she had forgotten flowed out of her mind and onto the pages. She remembered that she’d always written with her left hand until scolded out of it by the nuns at her convent school.
She also began writing about her physical pain. Her hip was so painful that she held written ‘conversations’ with it. One day she received an insight almost as if her hip had answered her, “You’ve been running and running, and pushing and pushing and you haven’t given me any attention at all!” She realized how much she had taken her body for granted all these years.
Then Mari made the connection between the lack of attention she’d had from her parents and the lack of attention she gave herself. In her journal, she began to tune into her body. She delved deep into the feelings the pain brought up in her.
She wanted to make a trip to England to attend a writing course, but was held back by her schedule of necessary injections of prescription medicine. She went anyway – taking a chance that she could manage without the drugs. During the weeks she was gone, she realized she’d hadn't felt this good in years – drug and mostly pain-free. As soon as she got home she canceled her health insurance and became her own primary health care provider.
17 years later and she has recovered about 70 percent of function in her right side. She can write with both hands now. She continues to journal and has written a best-selling book, “Journaling Power: How To Create the Happy, Healthy Life You Want To Live”, which is focused on healing through writing. She set up her website, CreateWriteNow. Currently, she is enjoying a renaissance in her career path as she teaches and consults on the healing power of journaling.
Mari’s story is anecdotal, of course, but back in 1996, Professor James Pennebaker was already onto the theory that writing out one’s emotions creates a healthier body. He conducted a study on some students, splitting them into two groups. The first were told to write about the biggest trauma of their lives, and the second control group was given mundane, descriptive writing tasks. The study only lasted a few days, but during the following six months, Pennebaker discovered the first group made a significantly lower number of visits to the doctor’s office than the members of the second group. He felt he had discovered something important: that writing trauma out of the body prevents future illnesses.
So, Mari found that writing helped an existing condition, and Professor Pennebaker found that it can act as a preventative. Many more studies followed: a small study in Kansas found that women suffering from breast cancer experienced a reduction in symptoms and required fewer medical interventions during their recovery.
There is no evidence that writing out one’s emotions is a cure-all for everything, but what it does do is reduce the emotional impact that may trigger disease in the first place. Post diagnosis, writing helps the body to release negative emotion and thus aids in healing and recovery.
Interestingly, one manifestation that often occurs when someone begins to journal their emotions, is that during the first few days, they feel dreadful. As though all those churning emotions are triggering a healing response. These uncomfortable feelings of stress and depression resolve themselves very fast as the journaling continues. Healing through writing, it's a thing.
Potential Benefits of Writing Out Your Feelings
- Improved immune system
- Mental well-being
- Increased creativity
- Reduction in stress
- Healing of physical conditions
- Weight loss
- Improved relationships with other people
- A reconnection with your true self
- Your thoughts become less scattered and you gain focus
- You can process your feelings instead of bottling things up
- Helps you to detach and let go of negativity
- Reduces resistance to new ideas
- Increased self-esteem.
How To Start Healing Through Writing
Begin with the morning pages. It doesn’t have to be in the morning, but any time of day that feels right to you and when you won’t be interrupted. Get a lined note pad and write for at least 15 minutes. It doesn’t matter what you write about — simply allow the words to flow. If you need some help to get started, try using one of the prompts below:
- What made you feel bad when you were a kid?
- Who did you love most when you were growing up? Why?
- Did you enjoy school or hate it? In what ways?
- What did you do that you are most ashamed of?
- Did anyone ever call you names? How did that make you feel?
- What gets you stressed?
- When are you happiest?
- What makes you angry?
- What makes you cry?
Once the morning pages have become a habit, do your best to make journaling become a regular practice. Turn to your journal when you need to confide, confess or rant. Write down what you are confused about, what decisions you have to make, what problem you need to solve. Write about your relationships with your boyfriend, spouse, children, parents, teachers, boss, coworkers, and anyone else who plays a significant role in your life.
Use your journal to chart your bodily conditions, whether it be illness or stress. If you are trying to lose weight, write down what you eat and why you ate it. How it made you feel before, during and afterward.
When you read your entries back, you may see patterns emerging. You might be able to identify self-destructive behaviors or conversely, where everything is going well. You may spot that a 'healing through writing' process is taking place.
- Be honest. There’s no point otherwise. You are not writing for anyone else’s eyes.
- Write longhand. There’s a connection between the brain and putting words down on paper. Your wrist may ache a little to begin with but you’ll soon get accustomed to writing with a pen again.
- Write whatever you want. There’s no judgment here.
JW Pennebaker: Study “Putting Stress Into Words”
Note: Advice given here is not a substitute for a medical consultation. If you are ill, contact a qualified medical practitioner.