Writing as therapy: how words can heal

Girl with Glasses Sitting Wooden Table Workplace

As the sun sets on World Mental Health Day 2018 — though the issue is timeless and universal — I’m minded to talk about what I know best: writing.

Many words have been written about the power of writing to heal trauma, deal with emotional pain or just clarify our thoughts.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Flannery O’Connor

Writing nails what we’re thinking, pinning our butterfly thoughts onto the green baize of the display case, so we can examine them more closely, from different angles, at different times and in different lights. It makes the emotion legible. This emotional legibility can externalise painful experiences, drawing some of the heat of the trauma and loosening its grip on our psyche. Observation without overwhelm.

This process of externalisation — of bringing what’s deep inside us out into the world, or just into our living room — is what we do when we ‘express’ ourselves (from the Latin, meaning to ‘push out’). We verbalise our thoughts in impermanent speech, then into semi-permanent writing (we can shred it afterwards if we want), and finally to the permanent record of publication, eg as a book or a blog, when we share it with the world. And as we push the experience out, we also push it away, ie we get distance on it. While not denying it, we separate ourselves from it to see it more clearly.

There’s something powerful about re-shaping random, chaotic thoughts into black marks on white paper. It’s like reversing cinema history: turning the noisy, technicolour drama inside our heads into a silent black and white movie on the page.

Many accounts of trauma talk about fragmentation — of sensations, feelings and memories shattered. When we write honestly and courageously about what’s happened to us, the process of turning that experience into everyday language can help us re-integrate it, ie to make it — and us — whole again. To piece it back together so it makes sense, and we can give it meaning in our lives.

Once accepted and internalised, the trauma can become meaningful, even positive. I know of someone whose traumatic experience — where she feared being killed — has re-framed her whole self-perception and life view. After loving therapy, which included much writing, she now sees herself as a survivor, with a deep appreciation of life.

Like Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the highly decorated US fighter pilot held by the North Vietnamese as a POW for seven and a half years. Tortured 15 times, held in solitary confinement for over four years, in leg irons for two, he transformed his perception of his trauma:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

I’m reminded of how the body heals itself. It forms a scab over a cut or graze as outer protection, allowing the deeper healing to take place. Writing can be the scab.

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If you’re struggling with any painful experience and want to write about it, here are some tips:

  • Write by hand. The connection between brain, hand and words is stronger than simply punching plastic keys on a keyboard. (A neurological map of the human body shows that our hands are connected to more neurons than almost any other body part.) So write long-hand with your favourite pen or HB pencil (I know: I need to get out more), rather than type your thoughts on a computer.
  • Don’t over-think it: write spontaneously. Your aim is to get into flow, to allow your thoughts and words to flow out of you onto the page. Judging the ‘quality’ of your writing — especially if you’re hard on yourself — kills fluency. Therapeutic writing is for your eyes only, not anyone else’s. If it helps you, it’s working. And if self-censure comes up for you as an issue, write about it there and then.
  • Write in a quiet place and time. It makes sense to explore your innermost thoughts and feelings in a place and at a time of day when you can be quiet, relaxed and thoughtful. On the tube on the way to work or during a spinning class is probably not a good idea. Many people write their ‘morning pages’ the moment they wake up.
  • Read it out loud. Vocalising what you’ve written in the safety of your own home can be a powerful way either of ‘exorcising’ what they represent, or simply facing them. R.O.L. helps us feel the resonance and power of our words in a way that we may not feel when we hear them in our head.

Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helps professional services firms transform their writing culture. He’s also on a mission to improve the life chances of the young and the disadvantaged by showing them how to write with impact.

Scott’s message to the world is that writing is neither a gift nor a black art, but a learnable skill. It’s a life skill that’s not the preserve of the few, but the birthright of all.

You can reach Scott at scott@writeforresults.com.