Writing as a Healing Technique

A growing body of research suggests that the physical act of writing about stressful events can benefit both body and mind.

When was the last time you took pen in hand and applied it to a sheet of paper to communicate your thoughts? If it’s been so long that you can’t remember, maybe it’s time to pull away from your keyboard. A growing body of research suggests that the physical act of writing about stressful events can benefit both body and mind. That’s why writing workshops are cropping up in various therapeutic settings, including psychotherapy practices, community health programs and hospitals.

Christiana Care Health System began offering its program—Writing as Healing—in March. “This is something that we’ve offered on and off at the cancer center but weren’t able to do it in a sustainable way with someone who had a lot of good experience and training,” says Scott D. Siegel, Ph.D., director of psychosocial oncology and survivorship at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute in Newark.

That someone Siegel was looking for turned out to be Joan DelFattore, author and professor emerita of English at the University of Delaware. DelFattore just happened to have a master’s degree in psychology as well. She was also a cancer survivor who used writing in her own recovery. So she approached Siegel about facilitating the workshop. “When you’re told you have a few months and then it works out, you have a very strong feeling that you owe the universe a ‘thank you’ and this is what I do,” she says.

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Research into the relationship between writing and health first appeared in the late 1980s with the pioneering work of Professor James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin. He discovered that emotional or expressive writing can reduce high blood pressure, lower the heart rate, enhance immune function, promote wound healing and decrease the severity of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Why is writing so effective? Pennebaker believes it has to do with the role of language when linked to emotion. As with talk therapy, words help us organize, simplify and understand a stressful experience. And when we understand something, we go from being overwhelmed and feeling helpless to being mentally and emotionally active.

DelFattore says that to achieve the best results, the writer must:

  • Find a safe, secure place to write
  • Understand that the first attempt is a baseline that can change over time
  • Write freely and be completely honest
  • Reflect on what was written

DelFattore begins each session with a meditation. She then offers a “model” piece of writing for the group to discuss. After that, she gives participants a prompt to kickstart their writing. Prompts such as “write about forgiveness,” “list the things you don’t want to change,” or “think of an unpleasant memory that still bothers you” produce prose that may or may not touch on illness but often uncover meaningful old stories or new perspectives.

“I don’t require people to write about illness because some of them are caregivers who haven’t experienced illness,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what you write about because the objective is to form a kind of internal relationship with yourself. It’s very similar to mindful meditation.” DelFattore stresses that the workshops are not meant to replace psychotherapy in the case of more serious issues such as childhood sexual abuse or schizophrenia. “What this is for is the common, ordinary, day-to-day stuff we all experience,” she says.

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Although the program is new, DelFattore sees possibilities for future development. While participants are not required to share what they’ve written, she hopes that some will give her permission to post their work on a separate website that she maintains. She also hopes that participants will bond with each other. “I think what will happen over time is that a core of people will get to know each other,” she says. “I’m hoping there will be a ‘writers’ community’ over time.”

Writing as Healing is held on the second Monday of each month in Room 1107 of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute, 4701 Ogletown-Stanton Road, Newark. Afternoon sessions (1–3 p.m.) and evening sessions (6–8 p.m.) are available. Pads, pens and light refreshments are provided. Call 623-4580 to register for your preferred time slot.