Write and Heal
When Karen Orosz, 52, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was fearful and anxious about her future. While sitting in a hospital waiting room, she noticed a brochure for a healing writing workshop. Intrigued, she signed up. “Writing helps you get at feelings you don’t even know are there,” Orosz says. “It helped me realize how precious time was and who I wanted to spend it with.” With that realization, Orosz made some changes. She began returning calls to friends sooner. She started using her vacation time and traveled overseas. Instead of spending evenings “vegging out” on the couch, she started walking her dog for exercise. Writing throughout her cancer treatment (she was diagnosed in fall 2007 and is now in remission), she was able to reduce stress and focus on getting well. “Writing helped me face mortality, and put things into perspective,” she says.
EXPRESS YOURSELF. Writing allows you to open up and learn from the thoughts and feelings that emerge. Strategies vary: You might write for 20 minutes per day for a week, or follow directions to recover a specific memory, such as the day you were diagnosed.
RELEASE TOXIC EMOTIONS. Putting your innermost thoughts to paper releases intense feelings including guilt, sadness, or anger—emotions that can impede your body’s ability to heal, says Joshua Smyth, Ph.D., coauthor of The Writing Cure (APA, 2002). Writing can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, too much of which can inhibit your body’s natural defenses.
GET HEALTHY. Expressive writing can help you cope with everything from poor body image and anxiety to chronic diseases, according to research. A 2005 study in the Journal of Health Psychology linked writing with lower blood pressure, while a 2006 study in Psychology & Health found that when adults with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis wrote about their illness, they experienced less fatigue than a control group.
MAKE YOUR WORDS COUNT
►BE REAL. Turn off your internal censors and write about your experiences— both positive and negative—as honestly as you can, says James Pennebaker, Ph.D., pioneer of expressive writing research and chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
►BE REFLECTIVE. Set aside 30 to 45 minutes for each session. Spend 20 to 30 minutes writing, then use the rest of the time to reflect on what you’ve written, suggests Sharon Bray, writing coach and author of When Words Heal: Writing through Cancer (Frog Books, 2006). Studies have found that venting without reflection can actually increase anxiety and depression, she says. Reread your work and see what you notice or understand about your emotions and recurring thoughts.
►BE POSITIVE. Focus on any benefits your situation may be bringing you, says Bray. (Karen Orosz, for example, focused on the love she felt from friends and family after her breast cancer diagnosis.)
►BE SPECIFIC. Get all the details down. If you’re writing about the first time you received a certain treatment, for example, ask yourself questions like: “What do I remember about the room, the temperature, or the sound of my doctor’s voice?” Recall the thoughts or images that ran through your mind.
►BE FREE. Let go of rules about proper grammar and punctuation; that will ease stress and help you get your feelings down, advises Gillie Bolton, coeditor of Writing Works (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006).
►BE PRIVATE. If you’re writing for an audience, you won’t delve into your deepest emotions, and may miss out on some therapeutic benefits. “Share your writing only with a handful of people who matter to you,” says Bolton.