The subtitle of Storied Mind used to be Writing to Recover Life from Depression, and I’ve often wondered why it is specifically that writing can help heal depression, especially when so many other approaches to treatment have failed me. When I was just starting this blog, I wrote about the fear of writing or even approaching my desk to get started. I’d sit there writing at a more intellectual level – circling the pain at a safe distance. But each time I closed in to confront, feel and work through it all, I’d start to shut down. Either my mind would blank out, emptying itself of all thought, or I’d distract myself with any number of inconsequential details or I’d get close to panic or I’d start dozing off. In all these ways, I stopped myself from expressing the deepest feelings.
I worked with a therapist on this issue for a long time, came up with the image that helped me cross into a different level of feeling/ thought/ responding. In this post, I described crossing a stream and feeling revived by the momentary immersion of my feet in the cold rushing water of a wilderness stream. I used that image to change the feeling of writing – a crossing into healing instead of danger. After so many efforts over years and years, it finally worked, and the healing this blog has brought me is the result. That is why I’m such a believer that writing can help heal depression. But not just any writing.
James Pennebaker is one of the few psychologists who has researched the question of why writing can be helpful in healing. In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, he summarizes what he found about writing after initiating studies into the health effect of emotional inhibition.
Self-Harm from Holding Back
He had long suspected that holding in powerful emotions connected to disturbing and traumatic events could have serious effects on physical and psychological health. Through survey research, he found that people who had been able to express their deepest feelings and talk through their experiences had far fewer health problems following the event than those who did not.
One of the reasons he identified went directly to my own experience. Holding back powerful feeling from physical expression takes a lot of hard work. The body reacts automatically to some emotions. The crying response, for example, is as unwilled as breathing, and forcing the body not to express itself in this way requires physical restraint and puts enormous pressure on both body and mind. As a long-term stressor, inhibition has been associated with numerous problems, such as asthma, migraine headaches, eating disorders and high blood pressure.
Restraining emotions can also damage thought processes. By avoiding expression, thinking tends to narrow to the worst aspects of painful experience, ignores a broader view and fails to integrate it into other dimensions of living. As I often found, that narrow thinking readily becomes obsessive, and the mind can’t break away from the events and emotions that are kept from others. It ruminates in ways that never solve a problem but only intensify its harmful psychological impact.
Talking Helps, So Does Writing
Pennebaker found that the value of expressing deep feelings stemmed first from the willingness to confront the disturbing emotions. By confrontation, he means actively thinking and talking about the experiences and acknowledging the feelings they’ve stirred. Putting those feelings into words makes it easier to understand what has happened and eventually assimilate it into one’s life.
But even with this willingness to confront their feelings, many can’t or won’t talk about what they’re going through. Perhaps the power of inhibition has become such a well-established habit over many years that they can’t break it by openly talking. Others believe talking about problems is a sign of weakness or even makes the suffering worse by “giving into” it and “wallowing.” This turned out to be a problem for Pennebaker himself.
When faced with his own emotional crisis of deep depression, Pennebaker – a psychologist working in a department full of other psychologists – refused to seek therapy. It would have been a sign of weakness, he thought, or perhaps a professional embarrassment. Whatever his reasons, he balked at following the advice he always gave to others.
Instead, he wrote about his experiences and his deepest feelings relating to all the major relationships and traumas he had been through. Every day for a week, he wrote and gradually felt freer. Not only did his depression begin to lift, but he also rediscovered a sense of purpose and meaning and reaffirmed the love he felt for his wife. That’s how deeply he found that writing can help heal depression.
Years later, reflecting back on that experience, he used his research to identify reasons for this beneficial effect of writing in addition to the initial willingness to confront unexpressed feelings.
- The Need for Completeness and Meaning: People need to explain things and reassure themselves that the world is a stable place. Writing to confront unexpressed feeling helps do that by providing a sense of direction and meaning. There is an emotional completeness achieved by the ability to express and explain. When the feelings and experiences begin to make sense, you go from being overwhelmed and helpless to being mentally and emotionally active.
- The Power of Language: Related to the need for meaning is the role of language when linked to emotion. The words help to organize and simplify experience. When you have the ability to explain something in words, you feel more confident that you really understand it. Pennebaker found that when trauma victims wrote about their experiences for several days in a row, the writing became more concise and organized, more focused on the event itself. Until the writing experience, the trauma could not be put into words at all.
- The Drive for Self-Expression: Abraham Maslow suggested that once basic human needs have been satisfied, people also show a powerful need to express themselves in language and action. Writing seems to be one form that satisfies that drive and prevents the harmful effects of blocking it.
Does Writing Always Help?
Pennebaker’s book is full of caveats about the use of writing to heal. It doesn’t work for everyone, and often it’s not even appropriate. Pennebaker identifies four types of writing that don’t work and can even make things worse.
- Substitute for Action: Writing can be a way to avoid taking action. Doing anything is hard in the midst of depression, but writing can’t serve as a substitute for doing something you know you can and should try to do.
- Intellectual Exercise: As often happened to me, you can write endlessly about rational causes of depression, speculating about the influence of family life or other issues but never really probing the deepest feelings of the present. It’s another form of avoidance that is unlikely to help with lasting improvement.
- Uncensored Complaining: Writing is a great way to complain about troubles and relationships. You can easily give yourself permission to blame and vent but not to reflect on what you are feeling and doing.
- Self-Absorption: Writing can also become an inventory of the self. You can record every detail about yourself, every pleasure or pain, every dream or disappointment, every nuance of feeling and reaction. But for the purpose of healing, it’s essential to get beyond that and reach an honest and reflective feedback that grows out of writing about powerful feelings and trying to see them in the full context of your life.
I keep coming back to the concept of confronting. That’s what transforms writing into a method of healing. The process starts with the intention, the honesty, the willingness to confront and name the deepest feelings, then search your experience and reactions for patterns, clues, helpful pointers. For me, that search moves me out of overwhelming fear and confusion to a sense of fulfillment and completion. That change is much more than a new rational understanding. There is a shift in belief about who I am, a shift from assuming the worst to feeling the full balance of life with all its ups and downs.
Has writing been a part of your approach to healing?