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?
I just thought I’d share my thanks to the writer of this post , as a sufferer of Major Depression this has been very helpful I would like more information on Natural ways to treat depression with seeing a professional
Thank you for this blog and its many pertinent points. In referencing Pennebaker and his research on the impact of expressive writing on processing emotions, you may be interested to know that creative writing based on such a an approach is used increasingly in various social care, health and community settings, from doctors’ waiting rooms to prison charities, to mental health drop-in centres.
Here in the UK, creative writing for therapeutic purposes (CWTP) helps people tap into the healing effects of creative writing. There is also a course to equip potential practitioners with the necessary skills and focus, at: http://www.metanoia.ac.uk/msccwtp
Many American writers are inspiring pioneers in this field. I’m thinking here of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller.
Thank you, again, for your blog.
Absolutely writing has helped me heal from my ex-wife’s affair. I write posts on my own blog which provide insights on how to better understand cheating and how to stop blaming yourself for the betrayal. The blog has given me an opportunity to dive deeper into the subjects that affect relationships like conflict resolution and communication techniques and ways to move on in life if your spouse leaves. I have experienced some depression since my wife left unannounced to live with another man in another city, but I’ve realized that I am better off without her.
Great post John. Great blog. Keep up the good work.
i would like more articles on this subject
Steven Clark (@sclarkauthor) says
A very well written blog, it covers a lot of ground.
I could not agree more: writing provides a huge cathartic release. It helps explore emotions and parts of your illness. Creating something is a pleasure, a diversion. Or even better, provides escape.
I would encourage anyone to write when you are ill, it helps crystallise your thoughts, makes them tangible and easier to understand.
I wrote a novel while in and out of depressive episodes, some chapters I don’t even remember what I had written about. I’m glad I wrote it, with hindsight it seems like a sort of closure on that part of my life.
Here’s a link to my effort: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Es-Complaint-Steven-Clark-ebook/dp/B00N552TX8
Thanks for your article. I found this post via Google after searching for the benefit of writing your emotions down.
I have been going through with some personal relationship issue for the past months. It has gotten to a point where it paralyzes me and killed all my drives.
At this stage of my life, I no longer talk about my issues with my friends or family because I don’t want to feel weak. Essentially, I have been bottling up my feelings.
This morning, I reached a critical point when a thought of something painful put me back in a state of deep unhappiness. I decided to write a letter to the person who is the source of my pain. I began the letter with some inhibitions but as I continued to write, I decided not to send the letter. At that, I made a conscious decision to write down my most embarrassing thoughts and feelings as if I was talking to the person.
As I became more liberated with my words, I began to feel better and better. I don’t know how long this will last but I’m very hopeful that this is a powerful technique to relieve my feelings.
I have had a diary since elementary school- and now at the age of 23, I look back and notice a distinct pattern in my work- Depression. It was there even when I didn’t know what depression was. It is so sad to read my old diary, I actually burned it; it made me so mad that I have felt this way for so long.
Now that I am older, I still journal, and find that it really does help. It helps me separate my thoughts, and allows me to think clearly. One of the problems with being bipolar, is that I tend to be impulsive, and writing allows me to make better decisions. Even when I am depressed, I want to make decisions based on my feelings at that moment, but I know I need to step back and look at the whole picture.
I wanted to thank you. I have a psychology degree and dedicated my work to studying neuropsychology, and the reasons behind abnormal disorders. I know the DSM like the back of my hand and know every symptom, and so believed reason behind depression and bipolar disorder, among many more disorders. But all that knowledge just made me feel like an outsider- the class in college is called “abnormal psychology”. Finding your blog, and reading your stories makes me feel connected. You put into words feelings that I haven’t been able to. And allowing me to post my thoughts is also therapeutic. Thank you for making this blog, and sharing your thoughts. It has helped me, and opened my eyes to a whole new side of depression. I am going out to buy some of the books you mentioned on your site today. I am at an all time low right now, but your blog has reminded me not to give up- it has found the strength in me. Thank you for writing, and letting me share my thoughts.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Leah –
I’m glad to hear that writing helps you – it’s been the primary means for me to get through a lot of problems with depression. It’s good to hear also that this blog has given you some ideas – and above all reminded you never to give up. Depression takes away so much of the belief in yourself that I have to pull out all the stops and try anything I can think of to keep life on an even keel. Please do keep sharing your thoughts here. I think we learn so much from each other and heal through sharing experience and insight.
Joan White says
That’s what I do to trying to beat my depression. While trying to get back to normal life, I write articles for my blog.
What an excellent post, John 🙂 to which I can only say “Yes, to all of it.” 🙂
Funny … I started to blog about two years ago when I first became really ill. Blogging’s been a lifeline through this …
Thank you, Jaliya!
I’m glad blogging has helped you too – I’m not sure where I’d be right now without the past two, almost three, years of writing these posts.
My best to you –
I’ve also been able to become more honest with myself. I very recently became very honest in my blog regarding my eating disorder which I posted. This allowed me to be more open about it in therapy and not feel so alone.
In holding back my emotions, I used to have really bad psorias and different skin ailment all my life even as an infant. I had one rash on the back of neck since I was born. I am prone to migraines and TMJ since preteens. My jaw even locked open at the dentist office. However, once I began to talk about my abusive childhood…everything, and I mean everything cleared up. Now, when I am hold back in therapy, I have those symptoms again.
Hi, CC –
I guess the body doesn’t let us hold things back for long without these hard signals. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with that as well as the trauma and abuse you’ve had to recover from. I’m so glad you’ve been able to release the feelings and take care of those problems.
All my best –
For me, beginning my blog was a great help in therapy…it provided an appropriate emotional expression to those outside my inner circle for my thoughts and emotions. It made things more real for me as I actually had to write truthfully, but safely as I generally am anonymous. Also, I was able to receive feedback from people who didn’t even know me.
By the way, March 1st was self-injury awareness day. I wrote a somewhat personal post that I thought you might be interested in. If not, no big deal. It feels good to be able to read and comment on blogs again. By the way, I really love your blog. The link is: http://clinicallyclueless.blogspot.com/2010/03/self-injury-awareness-day.html
Hi, CC –
My experience has been similar – writing here has been integral to my recovery, and hearing back from others has been amazing.
Thanks for your post on self-injury and the links it has. It’s something I never looked into before blogging, and these are great sites you’ve mentioned to educate folks like me.
I’ve never been seriously depressed but writing is my major way of processing my experience.
For therapy purposes in my journal but being a blogger has had surprising pay-offs too – it has helped me to stay aware of what is going on with me.
Thanks for an excellent post John
Hi, Evan –
Pennebaker also talks about the role of writing in wellbeing. Blogging in particular helps me retain balance because discovery and re-examination of experience and everything that comes my way keep renewing my energy.
Thanks for commenting.
At the worst of my depression 15 years ago, I journaled obsessively. I think I fell into both self-absorption and complaining, but probably wrote some good stuff too. I worked some of it over with the idea of writing a book about the experience, but do we really need another one of those on the shelves?
Now I wonder if I should go back and rework it from the perspective of my state of mind now. But I feel afraid to even open the notebooks for fear of re-experiencing what I felt then and what was happening to me.
The opposite of you, I find myself “oversharing” my emotional state and possibly reinforcing it rather than managing it. I agree though about the detrimental effects of holding it in. Since it’s so rare that we can reveal our emotions, either because the situation is not that intimate, or because of stigma, or because we’ve bored the person we share those emotions silly by constant repetition, holding back takes a lot of physical and mental effort.
Thanks for giving me a safe place to write about what I experience in my world.
Hi, Karen –
I doubt that reworking your journals what lead to your re-experiencing the feelings of 15 years ago. You’ve learned a lot since then, and you’d probably wind up rewriting quite a bit. At least I went through something like that when I tried to start this blog with earlier journal material. I came to think of the writer of the old journals as a separate person I could learn from – I could see how the writing went in circles, as my thinking did, and it was easy to see more clearly what I was not writing about – avoiding altogether.
I’m not one to discourage you from a writing project – it always seems helpful to me, provided I see it first as a step in my own recovery and only second as a possible publication. Don’t worry about what other people would think about the finished product – or try to slant it toward some invisible audience in your mind.
If your inclination is naturally to express/explore yourself in writing, I’d keep on doing it – in whatever form works.
All my best — John