Write to Heal

The research behind writing as healing

I took a class with Dr. Roy Fox when I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia called Writing as Healing. In it, we read about a number of studies that show that certain kinds of writing really do work to let go of the lingering painful feelings after a traumatizing event or period in your life. The leading researcher in the field is Dr. James W. Pennebaker, who has studied writing as healing for decades.

For a summary of his research and links to books and articles on writing as healing, click here.

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How to write to heal

Not all writing about traumatic experiences is effective, so be sure to follow the simple instructions below. There are different variations on these instructions that you'll find if you read more about writing as healing, but these are the guidelines I followed as I wrote about my struggles with Crohn's disease, and they were very effective.

My examples on this website are all from the medical memoir Guts that I wrote about struggling with Crohn's disease, but writing to heal works for all kinds of traumas, and you can see narratives on other topics on the page Your Stories. Some common traumas include being bullied as a child, abuse, losing a job, dealing with (or being) an alcoholic, depression, betrayal, etc.

Here's how to do it:

  • Pick out a traumatic experience that you feel still haunts you.
  • Write about it for 20 minutes at a time in a place where you won't be disturbed. Dr. Pennebaker recommends writing in this way for four days in a row, but studies have found measurable changes in immune function from doing this kind of writing as little as one time. For a trauma that took place over an extended period, you may want to write for more than four days. I wrote once a week sporadically for about three years.
  • Don't worry about spelling and grammar.
  • Write only for yourself.
  • Deal only with events and situations you can handle now. If it's too soon for you to be able to write about something, then set it aside until you're ready, or consult a professional counselor to help you do this writing.

As you write, follow these rules:

  1. Make sure you write in first person (using "I").
  2. Focus on one specific moment at a time--especially the most emotionally loaded moments (you may need to write about a series of these moments, one at a time).
  3. As you write about each moment, include as many details as you can (sights, sounds, smells, dialogue, etc.), and tell the story of exactly what happened.
  4. Be sure to write about the feelings you had then in that moment.
  5. Also be sure to write about the feelings you have now as you write.

For this writing to be most effective in letting go of negative feelings, you need to dig in to the key moments. This is hard to do, and painful. You may feel sad or upset or angry while writing and for an hour or two afterwards, but long-term, you will feel a sense of lightness and release that never goes away.

You can use self-compassion to help ease the emotional discomfort of this writing, as described in the excellent book Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff. Self-compassion means recognizing that the suffering you are experiencing is shared by everyone. It also involves observing your emotional state and evaluating how much you can handle before it's too much, and noticing what kind of self-care would help you cope--should you keep writing? take a break? talk to a friend?

The good news is that if you're upset during and after writing, that means there is real lingering emotion locked up in that memory, and now that it is released, you can truly start to heal.

I tended to write in multiple sessions of usually an hour at a time over many weeks because I like writing, but if you are reluctant to get started, just doing it once for 20 minutes can have a marked impact.

You might also want to try some variations on these guidelines. For instance, it may be helpful to write a dialogue with someone who has hurt you that you can't talk to in person. The dialogue allows you to try to make sense of that person's reasons for acting as s/he did.

  • I wrote a dialogue like this with my best friend from grade school who turned on me and bullied me, and it helped me understand that the friend was acting not out of personal malice toward me but out of her own insecurities.
  • Another woman wrote a letter to her dead father who molested her as a girl.
  • A college student wrote a dialogue with his former girlfriend who unexpectedly dumped him, changed her phone and email, blocked him on Facebook, and refused to explain.

There's a human need to make sense of traumatic experiences, and even when the person involved can't or won't explain, you can reconstruct his or her point of view in order to allow you to think through his or her motives and perspective--and ultimately move on.

 

Sample writing as healing passage from my memoir Guts

It helps to see an example so you can really understand what these instructions might look like in action. Click here to get to a sample passage that exhibits these guidelines from my memoir Guts.

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Let me know how it goes

If you do try writing as healing on your own, please leave a comment below to let me know how it goes. How did you feel as you wrote? Did you notice anything had changed for you the next day or beyond?

Also, you may find after you write that you have an impulse to share what you've written. In that case, I'd be delighted if you chose to submit a writing as healing narrative to my website using the Submit page.