How can research help us understand therapeutic writing?

Once upon a time, only people like Aristotle, William Shakespeare and Graham Greene knew that writing is therapeutic. ‘Give sorrow words.’ Shakespeare told us, ‘The grief that does not speak/Whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break.’ Centuries later Greene added that, ‘Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.’ But how do we know therapeutic writing can help us feel better about ourselves and our world?

James Pennebaker and Sandra Klihr Beall are the heroes of this story. In 1986 they realised that not talking about personal problems or trauma added to the stress caused by the trauma. They wondered if writing, instead of talking, about the situation would help, so they measured the effect writing about a problem had on a person’s mental and physical well-being. The results confirmed that ‘expressive writing’ helped alleviate the stress caused by trauma. Pennebaker and Beall’s initial studies were repeated and in the late 90s and the early years of this century independent researchers combined the results of all known research into therapeutic writing. These studies (known as meta-analyses) corroborated nearly three decades of research; writing about one’s troubles can soothe the hurt. Pennebaker and Beall were the first to prove what Aristotle, Shakespeare, Greene, and many others, knew instinctively.

While Pennebaker continued his research, writing groups designed to help people deal with trauma (or to support personal growth), were developed. Many of the facilitators were trained counsellors, some were writers interested in writing as therapy and all wanted to support people interested in writing as a healing tool.

This is where things get interesting. The two methods of investigating and practising therapeutic writing are fundamentally different. On one hand, pragmatic, quantitative trials measure the effect therapeutic writing has on large numbers of people, and allow researchers to draw reasonable conclusions about the reliability of therapeutic writing as a healing tool. These trials can be repeated and a range of variables can be controlled. On the other hand, therapeutic writing programs focus on writing techniques and an individual’s experience of telling their story. Workshops rarely produce hard numerical evidence and most researchers are nervous about things like creativity and imagination, variables with the potential to skew or influence the results of an investigation.

Do we have to choose between workshops that support writers striving to portray Greene’s madness, melancholia, panic and fear, and randomised, scientifically constructed trials? Don’t both methods prove writing is a form of healing? Is it time to change our focus and do more research into why therapeutic writing is helpful?

I believe the power of story can help us understand why therapeutic writing works. Stories are everywhere. Many blog posts relate stories of loss and suffering, resistance and hope. Novels, television dramas and comedies, movies, plays and even successful advertising campaigns are all stories. We are immersed in story; we create meaning through story; we create relationships through story. The next time you meet a friend for coffee you will probably tell each other stories about what has happened since you last met. Brian Boyd believes stories are an evolutionary necessity, part of an ancient need to ‘understand ourselves, to think—emotionally, imaginatively, reflectively—about human behaviour.’

If therapeutic writing is another form of story making then maybe it works because it helps us to:

  • Organise distressing events into a coherent, lucid narrative,
  • Share how we overcame adversity, or imagine how we can overcome it,
  • Reflect on how we dealt with our problems (or how we can deal with them better),
  • Understand how a challenging situation changed us,
  • Understand and reclaim our inner world, and
  • Understand the meaning of human suffering.

Writing therapy is ‘story therapy’. Writing our stories empowers us, particularly if they contain symbols, heightened language, metaphors, interesting characters, dialogue and plot. Stories can be a balm for the troubled soul; they make even irretrievable loss bearable. Researchers like Pennebaker, Beall and others handed therapeutic writers a potent weapon for personal and universal change. When we write our stories, we honour the work of these pioneers.

Do you think therapeutic writing can help us feel better about ourselves and our world? Why do you think it works? I look forward to reading your comments.

Those of you who have started following this blog (thank you) will have noticed I post new material at the beginning of the week. Next week’s post will provide more detail about Pennebaker’s research, and the following week I’ll discuss qualitative research into therapeutic writing.

2 thoughts on “How can research help us understand therapeutic writing?

    1. Thank you Carol, I appreciate your taking the time to comment. I have found turning my research into a blog very challenging. Limiting myself to around 1,000 words per post has clarified my ideas and helped my writing; it is a brilliant form of self discipline. I hope next week’s post will provide more for you to think about.


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