Writing to Heal

You don't have to be Bob Dylan to benefit from expressive writing

I am a writer by trade. When I was going through chemotherapy my friends urged me to write a blog. Write a blog? I thought, No way! – because A: it’s work, and B: who on earth would want to read a blog about somebody having cancer? Not me.

One day, en-route to the hospital and bedecked with headscarf, chandelier earrings, red lipstick and dark glasses, I stepped into my friend Jamie’s car to be greeted with his remark, ‘You’re really working the chemo chic look today girl.’ And that was it – a blog was born: Chemo Chic – A Guide to Surviving Cancer With Style. And then a book: The Elegant Art of Falling Apart. And then this website: The Chemo Chic Project.

All the way through my illness I wrote and wrote. On occasions it was difficult to describe the ghastliness of the chemo, the tediousness of the radiotherapy and the fear and desolation that I sometimes experienced. Other times it was pure joy to write about the silliness of encounters with my doctors, the kindness of the nurses and the love that landed on me in unexpected ways from all of my friends. No matter what I wrote about, after writing I always felt better.

My instinct was, and is, that writing is good for you but there is more to this than just my fancy.American psychologist Dr James Pennebaker did the first research in this area as long ago as 1986 and since then hundreds of studies have been carried out (if you are academically inclined you may read some of them here). The majority of studies have confirmed that writing about emotional trauma has positive physical health effects. These effects are not only measurable through subjective self-reporting – ‘I feel so much better after that’ – but are objectively measurable through such key markers as fewer visits to the doctor, improved sleep and changes in immune function.

In the course of repeated trials, Dr Pennebaker has refined his expressive writing method to make it as straightforward and effective as possible.

Dr Pennebaker’s Basic Writing Assignment

“Over the next four days, write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?

Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.”

It’s that simple. Interestingly, it is not necessary to read aloud or share what you have written. Healing seems to be a direct result of the act of writing about trauma. Dr Pennebaker adds some helpful pointers that may help to get you started.

  • Find a time and place where you will not be disturbed.
  • Write about something extremely personal and important to you.
  • Once you begin writing, write continuously for fifteen minutes.
  • Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation.
  • If you run out of things to write about, repeat what you have already written.
  • You can write about the same thing every day, or write about something different each day.
  • You can write longhand or on a keyboard. If you cannot write, you can speak into a recorder.
  • Write for fifteen minutes per session over four consecutive days.
  • It is not necessary to share what you have written with anybody else.
  • Deal only with events and situations that you can handle right now.
  • If you find that you are becoming extremely upset or disturbed in a way that you cannot handle, change topics or stop writing.

I feel inspired to give the Pennebaker method a go. Care to join me?

This article was originally published on The Chemo Chic Project