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Writing As Therapy - The Astonishng Mental-Health Benefits Of Writing

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Writing As Therapy - The Astonishng Mental-Health Benefits Of Writing

Writers are known to be a weird and wonderful bunch. The profession has produced a number of notable eccentrics, and writers are generally known for their more unconventional proclivities. Indeed, there are those who argue that a certain degree of mental divergence is necessary for true creativity – although whether madness causes creativity or creativity causes madness is a debate which has raged for centuries and continues to do so. As CNN puts it, does “Depression+AnxietyxMadness=Genius?” [1] It’s not an issue which is likely to be solved any time soon. However, one thing is known for sure – if you’re suffering from poor mental health, writing can prove an immensely helpful therapeutic aid. It may just be that these eccentric writers were mentally ill not because they wrote, but wrote because they were troubled, and writing helped them immensely. Here’s how it continues to help others today.

Releasing Trauma

According to a study released in the British Journal of Psychiatry, “Writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in both clinical and non-clinical populations” [2]. Benefits for trauma survivors of writing down their deepest thoughts for fifteen minutes a day included improved immune system function, reduced blood pressure, less anxiety, improved lung and liver function, vastly improved mental well-being, and many, many more. Furthermore, the improvements in physical wellbeing and cognitive function are something which chemical anti-depressants and anti-psychotics have thus far overwhelmingly failed in. As the Guardian says, “If it were a drug, this versatile little treatment would surely have a public profile to match Viagra” [3]. Nobody is quite sure why the simple act of writing should be so very successful where chemical intervention has failed, but most believe that it may have a lot to do with self-expression.

The ‘Talking’ Cure

The concept of the ‘Talking Cure’ was first described by Dr Josef Breuer in relation to a patient known simply as ‘Anna O’. Anna suffered from a great many symptoms which were described at the time as ‘hysterically’ induced – i.e. their root was psychological. Breuer discovered that he could calm Anna through the construction of tales, and began to encourage her through a combination of kind cajoling and consensual hypnotism to speak of the experiences which he believed may have contributed to her illness. Eventually, Anna began to give at each session with the doctor “a description of the various occurrences that had evidently triggered each of her hysterical symptoms during the previous year. As she did so, the relevant symptom itself would disappear” [4]. Anna referred to the process as ‘chimney sweeping’, as the talking cure effectively unclogged her mind of traumatic events, allowing them to flow out through her mouth and free her from their negative effects. One of Breuer’s pupils was Sigmund Freud, who would go on to use the ‘Talking Cure’ extensively, and bring to the attention of the world the impact which releasing traumatic experiences and emotions through expressing them can have upon mental health. While writing may not be talking, precisely, it does give one an outlet for distressing, upsetting, and mentally damaging thoughts and experiences which can be enormously beneficial to a suffering psyche.

In Treatment

Many medical professionals have taken up writing as a valuable tool in their fights against mental illness. Writing is particularly useful for those suffering from secretive illnesses like eating disorders as it allows disclosure, but not direct disclosure to another human. One can pour out one’s thoughts on paper without concerns regarding embarrassment or judgement – and, in so doing, many patients find themselves ‘unlocking’ aspects of their psyche and personal issues which they had not themselves consciously suspected were present. It often transpires that patients are still willing to write out their deepest feelings even if they know that a doctor or therapist is later going to read what they have written. Disclosure and release is something which their unconscious psyche aches for, and the delay, or lack of face-to-face in the disclosure process to another human allows the subconscious to get its wish without interference from the reticent conscious. The therapist then not only gains a greater understanding of their patient through the writing, the writing also forms part of the healing process. Therapeutic writing has been found to be hugely effective in the treatment of conditions like anorexia and bulimia nervosa, sufferers of which may otherwise be avoidant of ‘talking cures’.

Beneficial For All

However, you do not have to be suffering from a mental illness to benefit from the effects of therapeutic writing. According to scientists, the very act of writing itself “leads to strong physical and mental health benefits, like long-term improvements in mood, stress levels, and depressive symptoms” [5]. It is believed that writing makes us remove ourselves from our immediate problems, and assess and express them without engaging in harmful ‘ruminating’ thought patterns. The great thing about writing is that it flows – while feelings and emotions kept trapped inside your head can whirl round and round in an unproductive negative cycle (the process of which has been associated with “depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, binge-drinking and binge-eating” [6]), the process of writing naturally leads itself to progression. One can literally ‘write oneself out’ of a mental funk. Even more abstract writing can help our psyches to express in more unconventional ways things that needed to be ‘swept’ from the mind. So, to be happier, healthier, and more creative, pick up a pen and write some poetry!

[1] William Lee Adams, "The dark side of creativity: depression+anxietyxmadness=genius?", CNN, Jan 2014

[2] Karen A Baikie, Kay Wilhelm, "Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing", British Journal of Psychiatrics, Jan 2005

[3] Jim Pollard, "As Easy As ABC", The Guardian, Jul 2002

[4] John Launer, "Anna O and the 'talking cure'", QJM, May 2005

[5] Rachel Grate, "Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Love To Write", Arts.Mic, Sept 2014

[6] Margarita Tartakovsky, "Why Ruminating Is Unhealthy And How To Stop", Psych Central


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