Writing and healing

Words have the power to inspire and motivate, but did you know that writing can heal? Writing has always seemed a bit magical to me, like baking a cake without knowing what the ingredients are until afterwards. When I learned that writing could also help me deal with life, I wanted to know more. The definition of therapy is loosely “something that makes you feel better”. The concept of writing as therapy has gained momentum since the late 1980s, when studies first began to show the power of writing to support healing.

If you’re feeling stressed or anxious about a recent or upcoming event, grab a pen, take five minutes and write down your feelings, worries and concerns. According to James W Pennebaker, Professor and Chair of Psychology at University of Texas and author of the 1997 book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, doing so can help your mood and physical health. Writing, like many forms of talk-based therapies, helps you explore emotions, is a tool for self reflection, offers clarity and perspective and has been shown to improve physical as well as mental health.

Similar to the way art therapists assess your state of mind based on the nature of images you select, therapeutic writing is a tool psychotherapists and counsellors use to help determine the truth of what’s really going on inside you. Research continues to show what authors throughout history have known – that writing is a technique to help you discover your inner self. As award-winning author Joan Didion, says “I write to find out what I think”.

When you think, worry or ruminate, it is easy to get caught in a muddle of possibilities or potentials as your mind twists and turns from one thing to the next. This mental busyness is sometimes referred to as ‘monkey mind’ and is a prime contributor to anxiety and stress. When you take your thoughts, worries or mulling over to the page you create healthy distance between who you are and what’s on your mind. With your thoughts on the page you can clearly see that you are not your worries. This kind of distance – between you and a perceived problem – is known to be therapeutic. Distance inspires objectivity, helping you reframe your concerns.

In January 2011, researchers from the University of Chicago published a report in Science showing that students who take 10 minutes to write about their thoughts and feelings perform better on standardised tests than those who don’t. Part of their premise involves the idea that “worrying competes for computing power in the brain’s ‘working’ or short term memory”. They go on to discuss how when working memory is focussed on worrying, information recall is impaired.

Simply put, rather than worry about a problem, write about it! Writer and artist Julia Cameron, of The Artist’s Way fame, says, “Writing is medicine. It is an appropriate antidote to injury. It is an appropriate companion for any difficult change”.

Journal writing

While particular forms of writing are known to be especially healing, the simple act of journal writing can create positive change. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R Covey says, “Keeping a journal of our thoughts, experiences, insights and learnings promotes mental clarity, exactness and context”. Teacher Erin Gruwell tells the story of how she used journal writing to help turn around the lives of 150 challenging students and those around them in her 1997 book, The Freedom Writer’s Diary. On her website she writes, “Journals provided a safe place (for students) to become passionate writers communicating their own histories, their own insights. As they began to write down their thoughts and feelings, motivation blossomed. Suddenly, they had a forum for self-expression, and a place where they felt valued and validated.” If journal writing can have such a radical affect on the lives of children from difficult backgrounds, imagine how it could help you enhance your life. In her 2008 book, Writing Through The Darkness: Easing Your Depression With Paper and Pen Elizabeth Schaefer suggests beginning your journey of writing to heal with journal writing.

Therapeutic writing

Research highlights the particular healing power of what’s known as “expressive”’ or “therapeutic” writing. This defines the most healing type of writing as that which is directed or focussed, especially towards an event which triggers strong emotions. Writing is most healing when you intend to write about a problem, issue or concern, discussing both the detail of the event as well as your feelings towards it.

The concept of therapeutic writing is over 20 years old. In 1992, James W. Pennebaker presented a paper on ‘Writing About Emotional Experiences As A Therapeutic Process’ at the American Psychologists Association. In this paper, he describes how “The construction of a coherent story, together with the expression of negative emotions work together in therapeutic writing”. This highlights two unique forms of writing – a narrative style, that is, telling the story of sequential events, and an emotional style – describing feelings which emerged in response to said events. Using the two together – writing about both a challenging event and the emotions it triggered – creates writing that heals. Pennebaker continues with “The increasing use of insight, causal, and associated cognitive words over several days of writing is linked to health improvement”, showing that writing about the same event for consecutive days or weeks can help create progressive healing. The level of loss or stress a particular event caused you will likely inform how long you write about it.

Part of Professor Pennebaker’s work also involves analysing the words individuals use to describe their situations. If you’re interested to see what this research says about you – and you use twitter – you may find this analytical link insightful

A few months ago I was made redundant from a long term columnist position, a decision that caught me by surprise. I wrote about this event – and the variety of feelings it triggered – in the days and weeks that followed. Each time I did, different emotions emerged, helping me gain new context on how this event – and my emotional response to it – fit into the larger context of my life. In the days immediately following the shock of being made redundant, this quote, from Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With The Dead: A Writer on Writing, resonated strongly, “Possibly then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light”.

Benefits of writing For healing

One feature of writing for healing is the unique and sacred way in which writing offers an entirely private form of disclosure. Naming and defining one’s concerns, fears, worries or past trauma has long been known to have a therapeutic benefit. However, due to perceived judgement, lack of a safe relationship or low confidence in expressing emotions, you may rarely reveal what’s really going on inside. The fast pace of and focus on action in modern life provides little opportunity for stillness, reflection or honouring of feelings.

Taking to the page, with pen in hand, helps your mind and body slow down. Through the process of what’s called a “mind dump” – writing down what’s in your head, you create an opportunity to commune with your inner being. This allows you to look beneath surface worries, like concerns about having no personal time, or a lack of energy or affection, and explore the root of a situation, like how having no personal time really prevents you from x, y or z.

Buried longings exist deep beneath the surface of awareness; it’s through writing your stuff down that you can see what’s really there. Doing so helps you clarify and identify both the factors affecting a situation, as well as your private concerns about the heart of a matter. Writing, exploring and revealing these on the page creates healing and invites a sense of inner calm. For many, an immediate reduction in anxiety occurs; for some, multiple sessions bring the most benefits. While many support the belief that writing helps healing, it’s quite normal to experience a temporary low in the hour immediately following a writing session about a personally intense topic.

According to Julia Cameron, one of the physical benefits of writing is weight loss. Her 2007 book, The Writing Diet: Write Yourself Right Size describes her observations of watching heavy or overweight students drop kilos as they rediscovered their creativity over the course of her 12 Step Artist’s Way program. She observes “A steady diet of self reflection soon regulates over eating” and that ‘Writing makes us conscious. Once we are conscious, it is difficult to act out in unconscious ways” (like overeating or indulging in food as comfort).

Whether you’re on a particular diet regime or simply looking to improve your diet to improve overall health, Julia says “Using the tools of the Writing Diet will greatly increase your chances of success with whatever diet you choose”. Julia’s first tool is what she refers to as Morning Pages. It’s also the first tool described in Week 1 of her Artist’s Way program. It involves writing three pages of free form writing first thing in the morning. Julia recommends doing this long hand – with pen and paper. The idea is to make these “strictly stream of consciousness” words. Don’t judge or set expectations on quality or quantity: let yourself put down whatever comes to mind. Elizabeth Schaefer concurs, stating, “Writing with paper and pen puts you in more direct physical contact with your words; I feel this leads me to access a more creative part of myself”. Familiar with 12 step programs, Julia calls morning pages part of “getting current”, which helps you “catch up on yourself, to pinpoint precisely what you are feeling and thinking”.

Elizabeth Schaefer notes “When you keep writing, no matter what, you tend to access the more creative, more emotionally insightful parts of your brain, rather than your picky “editor brain”. Putting pain into words can:


  • help you identify feelings and separate yourself from them.
  • allow you to create stories about your life and find new perspectives.
  • help you sift out aspects of your mood, allowing you to examine them to understand consciously the stories you tell yourself.
  • help you clarify which parts of yourself call for what action and why.

Writing Exercises

Dr Allan G Hunter, a Doctor of English Literature who uses therapeutic writing exclusively in his coaching practice, offers “writing exercises designed to help you reflect on your life so that you can understand yourself better”. He talks of how writing provides a physical record of insight, growth and progress that can’t immediately be forgotten. Dr Hunter describes how the act of writing experiences and feelings down somehow preserves them, thus proving your own breakthroughs, insight or emerging awareness to yourself. He suggests reviewing your writing as it shows both what you said and how you said it plus helps you reflect on your process. In his book The Sanity Manual, Dr Hunter comments, “Mental health is something we do for ourselves”. As such, he recommends getting into the swing of things by starting with simple self description writing prompts.


  • Beginning with “I am…” complete this sentence around 10 times.
  • Then, beginning with “I am not…” complete this sentence around 10 times.
  • Afterwards, take a few minutes to reflect on what you’ve written. Do you see anything you’d like to add? If so, go ahead and do so. Then, consider how you might prioritise what you’ve written. Take care not to judge how things emerged from within you – but be curious as to what titles or self definitions came at the start, towards the middle and then as you finished up.

Dr Hunter also suggests reconnecting with memories or formative experiences (like birth, early or middle childhood/family life, entering adulthood and so on) through writing. Pick an age which stands out for you in your formative years. Give yourself 5 – 10 mins to write about why that age was important. Write about events that happened and your response to them.

In her final book, “On Grief and Grieving”, Elisabeth Kubler Ross writes of the impact letter writing can have on your grief process. Her beliefs around the healing power of externalising grief are reflected in this passage, “Writing is a wonderful companion to our loneliness in a world where we stand alone. Writing externalises what is in us. Those circulatory thoughts can find an exit with the pen and paper or with the keyboard and mouse. For many, writing feels better than speaking as the unspoken healing can come through journaling. You can find your voice in writing in a way that you can’t find in other forms of communication. You can also finish your unfinished business in letter writing”.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross goes on to suggest the following writing exercise for grief – “Write a letter to your loved one with your dominant hand. Now, get a fresh piece of paper and allow yourself to write a letter back from your loved one with your non-dominant hand”. If you’re right handed, you’d write the first letter with your right hand and its response with your left. While this sounds entirely magical, it’s not an uncommon tool in therapy – in those instances it’s designed to access your higher self. Kubler Ross’ work showed this letter writing technique to be useful in bringing comfort, insight and perspective to those dealing with grief.

You can write anywhere with basic tools like pen and paper. If you really want to get heal pain – get to know you – there’s no better way.


Kelly Surtees

Kelly Surtees

With more than 14 years in private practice, Kelly Surtees is experienced, warm and insightful. She loves exploring astrology’s history as well as escaping into the ocean. Kelly’s passion for astrology is infectious, and her specialty areas include career and life direction, health and fertility, love, health and happiness. Kelly is an expat Aussie who lives in Canada most of the year.

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