Friday, December 5, 2014

Unexpected Therapy: Need to Get Over It? Write about It!

Writing is unexpected therapy--more and more studies are finding this true.  We get healthier the more we write.  

How can that happen?  (Especially if you're stuck right now, your writing may feel far from a healing act!)

One of my students, who recently published his first novel, sent me an article in the Harvard Business Review this week.  Writing is being featured in leadership development workshops now; it's helping executives "digest" difficult experiences in their careers. 



One of the participants wrote about a traumatic time when he was working on assignment in Nigeria and visiting one of his company's oil rigs.  He and five others were taken hostage, and two of the hostages were shot.  Writing about it in the class helped him process the trauma, which surprised him. 

But this isn't such new news, folks.  Writing is one of the first of the arts to be studied for its healing potential. 

The studies don't reveal what you might expect, though. 

It's only certain kinds of writing that actually allow us to get past trauma, to process it on the page. 

When we get stuck in our writing--overwhelmed with heaviness, negative self-talk, critical thoughts, even strong symptoms--we aren't using writing to heal.  Curious about that?  Read on.

Writing as a Way to Heal
The Harvard article cited work by James Pennebaker, a social psychologist from University of Texas, who many years ago wrote a ground-breaking book called Writing to Heal.  From his research, Pennebaker discovered the keen connection between writing and healing from trauma.  Over the years, he's received grants from NSF and NIH to study this connection, and the evidence has become more and more solid. 

But the surprise, to me at least, came when I read a book by one of Pennebaker's colleagues, Louise De Salvo.  In Writing as a Way of Healing, De Salvo cites research that proved daily writing of a certain kind and quality reduced serious medical symptoms and promoted healing.  Immune function, depression, and a host of other large and small illnesses showed marked improvement with writing therapy.

But the therapy only worked if three specific elements were present:

1.  Writers included how they felt at the time of the trauma.
2.  Writers also included how they felt now, in the present, looking back--comparing then and now in terms of emotional impact.
3.  Writers described the trauma using sensory details (smells, sounds, etc.).

When one of these elements was missing, the writing was not therapeutic.  It could even make the stuckness, or the illness, slightly worse. 

So cathartic writing, venting on the page, didn't do it.  Surprising, eh? 

For ten years, I've worked with this formula myself, tested it out in my classes and editing work, and shared it with colleagues.  It's always proven true.  When I write difficult scenes, drawing from my history, I try to incorporate all three elements somewhere in the chapter or section of the book.  If I am writing memoir, I include the three steps for myself as the narrator.  When writing fiction, I have my character do all three of these steps. 

It works.  Load gets lifted.  Unexpected therapy! 

Test it out yourself.  First, check out the Harvard Business Review article, see what you might learn about healing via the writing process.  Then look at a piece of writing where you are stuck, feel uneasy, don't quite know how to finish.  Which of the three steps are you missing?