I am inspired by the many special people with whom I have learnt this to be true; of the healing benefits of writing about life’s experiences expressively.
“Am besten gefällt mir noch, dass ich das, was ich denke und fühle, wenigstens aufschreiben kann, sonst werde ich komplett ersticken. ” Anne Frank 1944
Translated as: “The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings, otherwise I’d absolutely suffocate.”
Research like those by Pennebaker et. al. in the 1980s have shown that groups of people who have been asked to write expressively about difficult times of their lives 15-20 minutes a day for 5 consecutive days benefitted more from the control group (who were asked to write about superficial themes) in these areas (Horn et. al 2011):
- they needed fewer doctor’s visits.
- they had better immune parameters
- less medical symptoms
- less depressive and anxiety symptoms
- experience overall better sense of wellness.
Putting into handwritten words your negative emotions, is especially useful. The term “negative”, refers to painful feelings that we normally try to avoid and conceal from others and ourselves. These emotions are not “negative” in the sense that they are bad or wrong. These emotions, like fear, sorrow, panic, shame, envy, anger, grief, loss and sadness, have everything to do with us being human.
Emotions are embodied. This is not commonly acknowledged fact. However, when panic, for example, sets in, we feel it in the body. This is why the panic attack is paralyzing. It makes us feel vulnerable.
Depression is not an emotion in itself. It involves a bodily action. Emotions are being controlled. Feelings of rage, anger and fear are being surpressed. There is so much energy in this surpression that the physical energy gers sapped out, leaving us weak.
Writing is a uniquely human activity. It is action. It is intellectual, and it is language. Writing expressions of emotions brings to action the emotions that underlie painful memories. Unlike speaking out or physically acting out the emotions, writing has a protective effect: it is a form of expression that is somewhat energetically controllable. The fact that the writer is control of his/her pen is an important factor for individuals who are psychologically fragile, who risk being overwhelmed (or even traumatized) by painful memories.
Since writing is also language, writing helps us to understand these emotions.
“(T)he most important thing for me is to understand. For me, writing is part of this process of understanding. Writing is an integral part of the process of understanding… If others understand in the same way I’ve understood, that gives me a sense of satisfaction… wie ein Heimatsgefühl*” Hannah Arendt 1964 (Gaus & Arendt, 1964).
*a feeling of being at home.
Expressive Writing in Psychotherapy
Personal experiences allow me to understand the usefulness of writing.
I encouraged almost everyone I know to keep journals, write blogs or keep sketchbooks. There is no need to write in prose or even correct sentences (although many do write impressively). Simplicity is effective. Write everything down, even if there are doubts if the words are real/true/right or belong. Anything written wrong can be cancelled out later, but write first.
In the therapy session itself, difficult experiences or deeply emotional fantasies, dreams and thoughts can be written down. Sharing between therapist and client during the sessions are potentially contactful moments.
For clients who have difficulty feeling or expressing emotion, this process is especially useful. Keywords are offered to them. These individuals learn first to intellectualize the meanings of the emotional word, then link them to the experience of the events. The possible outcome of which is a gradual encounter of the person with the realm of feelings.
Unlike spoken narratives, the client remains in control of how much he/she wants to write or express. He/she has time to consider. Everything slows down. This is especially useful for very delicate clients.
Writing has an added dimension. The words do not disappear — unless the paper is destroyed.
Horn et. al. explains the immunological connection with expressive writing. Mentioned in the article presented are also theories behind how this activity can have such impact (p.254-257).
Writing can be part of the therapy session. The process of writing can shared — the client puts down the words while the therapist supports and provides a safe environment.
Gaus, G., & Arendt, H. (1964). Gespräch mit Hannah Arendt. R. Piper. Retrieved from web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9SyTEUi6Kw
Horn, A. B., Mehl, M. R., Detters, F., & Schubert, C. (2011). Expressives Schreiben und Immunaktivität: Gesundheitsfördernde Aspekte der Selbst-Öffnung. Psychoneuroimmunologie und Psychotherapie. Stuttgart: Schattauer, 208-227.