Writing to Heal: The Healing Power of Writing

Notebook on grass to illustrate writing to heal, the healing power of writing

A few years ago, while very ill with arthritis, I came across a book called Writing to Heal by James W. Pennebaker, PhD.

Dr Pennebaker is a research psychologist at the University of Texas who discovered the amazing healing effect that expressive writing can have on people who have experienced trauma. His research proved that simply writing about one’s emotions can significantly improve one’s health.

The Benefits of Expressive Writing for Healing

Over the years there have been many studies into writing as a tool for healing. Researchers have found that people visit their doctors less after engaging in expressive writing.

They also found that expressive writing is associated with:

  • general enhancement in immune function
  • better lung function in asthma patients
  • lower pain and disease severity among arthritis sufferers
  • higher white blood cell counts among AIDS patients
  • less sleep disruption among patients with metastatic cancers
  • reduction in resting blood pressure levels
  • reduction in liver enzyme levels associated with excessive drinking
  • immediate signs of reduced stress
  • feeling happier and less negative than before
  • improvement in working memory
  • enhanced quality of social life.

What is the Difference between Expressive Writing and Journal Writing?

When I first came across Writing to Heal I wondered if there was any difference between expressive writing and journal writing.

For many people writing in a journal is a therapeutic experience. A journal is where you can express yourself honestly and write about things you feel unable to talk about.

I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was seventeen. My journal is where I present my worst self, my vulnerable self, the self that is weak, fearful, depressed, sad, sick, lonely, in conflict and unhappy.

Expressive writing is different to journal writing in that it helps you to construct a meaningful story out of the often chaotic narrative events of your emotional event or trauma.

It’s not meant to be an exercise in navel gazing and will only benefit you if you are able to analyse your writing, understand what has happened to you through it, and get on with your life. It will not heal you if you become obsessed with your traumatic event and never find any resolution.

It also has more benefit if you are able to switch perspective in your writing and view events through others’ eyes.

Guidelines for Writing to Heal

On his website Dr Pennebaker sets out some guidelines for the Writing to Heal process.

Getting Ready to Write
Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed. Ideally, pick a time at the end of your workday or before you go to bed.
Promise yourself that you will write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least 3 or 4 consecutive days.
Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written.
You can write longhand or you can type on a computer. If you are unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder.
You can write about the same thing on all 3-4 days of writing or you can write about something different each day. It is entirely up to you.
What to Write About
Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much.
Something that you are dreaming about.
Something that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way.
Something that you have been avoiding for days, weeks, or years.

In a great deal of pain and unable to walk, I decided I had nothing to lose by trying the writing exercises for myself.

Over a period of four consecutive days I wrote in my journal every day for a minimum of twenty minutes, answering a set of specific questions each day.

Instructions for Writing to Heal

In his writing instructions Dr Pennebaker invites you to write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the trauma or emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most.

He suggests writing about how it is related to your childhood relationships, your current life, your friends, family and work. Write about how this event is related to who you were in the past, who you would like to be in the future and who you are now.

On subsequent days, the writing instructions include thinking about how the trauma you are writing about is affecting your life in general and how you may be responsible for some of the effects of the trauma. Also, how the trauma has shaped your life and who you are.

Finally, Dr Pennebaker asks you look at what you have learned, lost and gained as a result of this upheaval in your life. And to examine how these events from your past will guide your thoughts and actions in the future.

The only way for this exercise to work is for you to be completely honest with yourself. You have to confront critical issues you have been avoiding. You may have to take responsibility for the situation you’re in, admit mistakes, allow yourself to be vulnerable.

My Experience of Writing to Heal

Looking back at what I wrote then is difficult and doesn’t make for pleasant reading. I wrote about my bewilderment and anger at having a long-term illness and the role that ill health had always played in my life. I wrote about my fear that nothing would change.

I described feeling depressed, lonely and frustrated – forgotten by my friends while they got on with their lives.

I also wrote about what I wanted. How I wanted to be healthy and fit, positive and engaged in life. I didn’t want to be an arthritis sufferer for the rest of my life and I was angry that I was no longer able to go on the long country walks I loved.

With each day’s writing my perspective shifted a bit. After writing about how I had reached such a bad state of heath and how I felt about it, I started to write about what I wanted to do about it and what I wanted to change about my life.

I was reminded of that Writing to Heal exercise this week while listening to a BBC Health Check podcast on James Pennebaker. As I walked round the park, training to walk the 102 miles of the Cotswold Way, it felt like a lifetime away.

It took about two and a half years in total before I fully recovered from the arthritis and was literally back on my feet. During that time I had to learn how to walk properly again and how to negotiate stairs and lower myself to the ground.

I wondered if the Writing to Heal exercise I did helped to improve my health. Almost all the life changes that I wrote down have come about. I am more fit and healthy now and walking has become a priority in my life. There have been ups and downs in the intervening years, but in general, I feel more positive and engaged with life.

So, if you’re going through an emotional upheaval or dealing with a past trauma, I urge you to try expressive writing for yourself.

I believe that writing can heal and that the power of confronting the self on the page can be life changing.

Why not give it a go?


James Pennebaker’s homepage

Guidelines for Writing and Health

BBC Health Check podcast on James Pennebaker

Photo: Thanks to Judit Klein on Flickr.com

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5 Responses to Writing to Heal: The Healing Power of Writing

  1. Emery August 5, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

    Dear Angie
    As you live in London, I wonder if you are aware of the course run by the Metanoia Institute in London, on creative writing for therapeutic purposes (CWTP)? This too looks at the impact of Pennebaker’s research, as well as the health benefits of journalling and other writing techniques. You might also like to attend a London event organised by Lapidus, the national organisation for writing for wellbeing.
    Details on the CWTP course can be found at http://www.metanoia.ac.uk/msccwtp, while Lapidus events can be found at http://www.lapidus.org.uk/
    Students in the field of CWTP have written dissertations on the interface between mind-body and the written word – Arthur Frank’s book The Wounded Storyteller has much to say that resonates with your approach here.
    I hope you don’t mind me bringing the above to your intention, but I do think what you are doing is fascinating and feeds into a growing awareness of the healing power of writing.

    • Angie Macdonald August 6, 2015 at 8:27 am #

      Dear Emery. Thank you for this information, it’s very useful for anyone wishing to explore this area further. I was aware of the CWTP course at the Metanoia Institute and Lapidus but they had both fallen off my radar in recent years. Interesting that you mention The Wounded Storyteller – it is one of the books in my very large and growing pile of books to read. My current interest is health memoir and I am working on a memoir at the moment. It is a very interesting exercise in switching perspective and creating a meaningful (and entertaining) story out of personal suffering.

      • Emery August 7, 2015 at 11:32 am #

        HI Angie, thanks so much for your reply. Your health memoir does indeed sound intriguing – and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in The Wounded Storyteller, which talks about making meaning out of suffering through personal testimony, and reclaiming the self from a medicalised context.
        Very best wishes

  2. Laska February 10, 2015 at 9:05 am #

    Hello , i’ve only just found your blog and its interesting reading ..

    V interesting about writing and healing.. perhaps you might look at the work of Dr John Sarno if you havent already ? .

    He writes extensively about the mind-body connection and how it can cause acute pain. (he started off with chronic back pain but has since written about other pain including arthritis, headaches and fibromyalgia.

    Writing is one of the tools he uses to break the link between mind and body pain.. ive found it very useful reading his books. I recommend his book: ‘The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders’.. ( now if only I could sort out the menopause stuff..)

    • Angie Macdonald February 10, 2015 at 11:33 am #

      Hi Laska. Yes, I’ve read ‘The Divided Mind’ – very interesting reading. I’m fascinated by the mind/body connection. I wonder if there’ve been any cases of women reducing their menopause symptoms through writing? The pen may be mightier than the sword but is it more powerful than oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone?

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