What is Writing Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Writers have long been able to attest to the possibly therapeutic benefits of writing things down. Whether encasing true events in fictional form, writing poetry, or journaling, many writers feel that the act of writing offers true psychological relief. Stephen King, for instance, has spoken of his desire to shed impulses to be cruel to his children, while composing The Shining, which features a family dominated by an alcoholic. The idea of writing therapy arises from the well-known benefits believed of the practice by writers and also by some early psychiatrists like Carl Jung. Studies on this form of therapy dating back to the 1970s have proven fascinating, and show it may do even more good than previously supposed.

Journaling may be good therapy.
Journaling may be good therapy.

Early thinkers in this area include Carl Jung, who formed some interesting theories on what he termed abreaction. This is the practice of repeating the details of traumatic or difficult events. Jung contended there was much benefit in this practice at a time when common knowledge suggested the best thing that people could do with trauma was to forget it quickly. James W. Pennebaker picked up such work in the mid-70s and he conducted a series of experiments where he directed students to write for 20 minutes on a trauma. This was repeated twice while a control group wrote on any trivial matter they wished.

Pennebaker’s findings, which have been repeated many times by other researchers, showed some very interesting factors. The students writing on trauma had strengthened immune systems, as proved by laboratory testing and they also self-reported greater sense of well-being. Those students who didn’t write on traumatic things were unchanged. There is some suggestion that the act of writing may have something to do with this process, since it activates different areas of the brain than does speaking. Thus the idea of writing therapy was born and a number of researchers and mental health professionals expressed interest in the field.

Today there are a number of ways that writing therapy can be practiced. It can be part of lots of different kinds of therapy, where a therapist makes a suggestion to a client that he or she spend 20 minutes for two or three days writing about traumatic experiences. Alternately, some people participate in formal writing therapy classes, which might be conducted at a local school or online. The therapist may discuss the writing with students or discuss ways to get started.

This interest in potential brain differences when writing instead of speaking about trauma deserves more study, since many people now participate in email or chat room therapy sessions where they must write their concerns and participate in written form with a therapist. Early studies are finding that online therapy can prove beneficial, but one question is if it is somehow different or better because it involves the written word. In a sense, online therapy is a form of writing therapy, though it does not take the same form as asking an individual alone to write for 20 minutes.

There is some question as to whether a therapist is really needed in the process. Certainly writing about trauma can be very activating, and a client might want to discuss this or get support from a therapist while doing it. For those who don’t feel they need this support, it might be useful to consider using writing as a tool, since there is strong evidence it may be a healthful practice, as beneficial to the body as it can be to the mind.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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