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How Writing Can Improve Your Well-being

by Melissa Hathaway

“Round and round he walked, and so learned a very valuable thing: that no emotion is the final one.”

Jeanette Winterson

For almost 20 years Dr James W Pennebaker has been extolling the virtues of creative writing as a route to healing. A professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, Pennebaker has written several books on the subject, and encourages everyone to use creative writing to improve both their physical and mental health. His research has shown that ‘short-term focused writing’ can have profoundly beneficial effects on anyone suffering from episodes as simple as a house move, to those facing cancer, divorce, or financial problems. Here’s what Dr Pennebaker’s research can teach us.

Powerful Secrets

Keeping secrets may tend to cause physical health problems. Dr. Pennebaker conducted an experiment to see if writing them out would help. The results were astounding. Patients who wrote their secrets down felt better, even if the secrets were never read and destroyed immediately. The patients’ immune systems improved and they visited the doctor less often.

Organizing Our Thoughts

Pennebaker’s theory is that any kind of upheaval makes minds work overtime, trying to organize and process what is happening. Pennebaker explains, “When we translate an experience into language we essentially make the experience graspable. Individuals may see improvements in what is called “working memory,” essentially our ability to think about more than one thing at a time. They may also find they’re better able to sleep. Their social connections may improve, partly because they have a greater ability to focus on someone besides themselves.” So does this mean that as well as our creative writing, we should be keeping a daily diary of events? No, Pennebaker suggests that we should use the opportunity to stand back and evaluate our life’s course rather than document every day events. Rather, he asks patients to write for 20 minutes over four days about an emotionally troubling event in their lives, really exploring their issues and how they can be tied to past events in childhood, for example. He urges them to write for no one except themselves, in a quiet space, not worrying about punctuation or style.

Making A Narrative

Through linguistic analysis Pennebaker’s studies have shown that those people who are able to construct a narrative whilst writing about difficult topics seem to have the best outcomes. If they begin with an unstructured account of events initially, but manage to organize their ideas into a coherent narrative after a few days, they seem to benefit the most. Approaching analysis linguistically is a very powerful tool for researchers. They look for words that signify complex emotional processing, and for the increasing occurrence of such words as writing exercises progress. They observed that words such as the prepositional ‘except’, ‘exclude’ and ‘without’ increase in frequency, along with causal words such as  ‘rationale’ and ‘effect’. Pennebaker believes that these word frequency increases demonstrate that the traumatic events being written about are becoming more manageable for the patient to process.

Changing Viewpoints

Just as we find it useful to change the viewpoint in a piece of creative writing by changing the narrator, so changing the perspective in a piece of healing writing can change the writer’s feelings about an issue. Pennebaker analyzed shifts in pronoun use and found a correlation between this and improved outcomes. He explains, “…one day they may be talking about how they feel and how they see it, but the next day they may talk about what’s going on with others, whether it’s their family or a perpetrator or someone else. Being able to switch back and forth is a very powerful indicator of how they progress.” As creative writers, we know only too well the power of changing perspectives when exploring a storyline or demonstrating how others perceive a character. It is fascinating to hear that the same techniques can be used in therapeutic writing.

Looking Ahead

For some year, art therapy has been a central plank of the therapeutic tool kit. ‘Journaling’ is the new buzzword at present, pioneered by Elizabeth Warson, professor at George Washington University’s art therapy program. Many younger patients enjoy this form of therapy and have benefited from the meld of written and artistic self-expression. Those who are attending residential therapy to recover from substance addiction in Washington State have been particularly encouraged to use this technique, and results have been impressive. But perhaps it is time that focused writing came more to the fore as a therapeutic tool. Writers such as Sylvia Plath and Jeanette Winterson have used the ‘confessional’ style to create beautiful works, perhaps understanding instinctively the power of this technique to heal themselves. Winterson is emphatic in stating that her Whitbread prize-winning first book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was a ‘fictionalized’ account of her extraordinary early childhood. In her recently published Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, a parallel non-fictional account of the same period, she discusses this first important work, explicitly stating that fictionalizing her life in Oranges was the only way she managed to survive psychologically.

Pennebaker’s research over a number of years certainly shows the transformative power of writing, and not just for patients. Perhaps we can all make use of his exercises in our everyday life. As the description of Winterson’s book elegantly expresses, it shows “…how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life-raft which supports us when we are sinking.”

Leonid Pasternak writing

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Sylvia Plath

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‘Journaling’ (Tumblr) unattributed

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Pen and script

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Why Be Happy…

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Don’t forget to ‘like’ us before you leave. For more great tips, sign up for The Writer’s Choice Newsletter (for free) at http://cwinst.com/newslettersignup.php.

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