Everything You Need to Know About Writing to Heal
Your words are pure magic. They can save your life.
Writing can help you make sense of the world. Even if you don’t know how or why, I think you inherently understand that writing has power. That’s why almost all self-help, weight-loss, goal-setting, habit-breaking, and change-making system you come across asks you to write it down.
Creating stories and arranging the narrative of our lives shifts something deep within us. Writing helps us observe our patterns, our fears, and our darkness. It brings them to the light so that we may transform them and heal our wounds.
In this article, I want to share with you the healing power of writing. I will cover:
- How writing helps you heal.
- The benefits of writing.
- The difference between writing to heal and journaling.
- The 5 types of therapeutic writing.
- The 2 main techniques needed for writing to heal.
- How to create a personalized process of writing to heal.
So how does writing help you heal?
There are many scientific studies that look at the health benefits of writing. But I’m not a scientist. I’m a writer, an artist. I jump in head first, pouring out all the details on paper. Then I step back to observe carefully as the patterns emerge before me.
And so it is with writing.
Writing helps you heal by letting you put out of yourself that thing which needs to be observed.
That’s what it means to express yourself: to press out of your being, to extract and expel.
When we do this with purpose and press out from ourselves something we want to heal, we can then look objectively at our wounds, our neuroses, and our fears.
We can see that the story we’ve bought into is our own, created or adopted. Then we can claim ownership of the fabric of our experiences.
As Brene Brown says, When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.
By expressing difficult emotions through writing, we create the opportunity to own our pain and transform it.
The Emotional & Physical Benefits of Writing
The granddaddy of therapeutic writing, psychotherapist Ira Progoff, developed the Intensive Journal Method back in the 1950’s when he explored psychology, creativity, and spirituality. His method combines journaling with psychological approaches to help patients:
- Gain awareness about diverse areas of their life,
- Connect with their real self, and
- Develop a more meaningful life.
Many other therapeutic writing programs have been developed since Progoff’s seminal research, but they are all similarly based around writing to gain awareness and create meaning.
With awareness and meaning, solutions to problems are easier to find. In this way, it’s easy enough to understand how writing helps us emotionally. Even without a specific focus on healing, when people write about difficult times, they often experience:
- Better moods.
- Less distressing symptoms to problems.
- Relieved tension and clarity.
- A sense of community.
- Relief from depression.
- An overall sense of well-being.
Writing helps us grow in understanding and develop a better attitude about our emotional state. This growth and change has some connection with our physical healing abilities too. Some research shows that people who write expressively have lower blood pressure, better lung capacity, and sleep better.
Whatever the case, writing is certainly worth the time and effort for the return it can provide. The wellness benefits of writing are felt in the physical and the emotional realms.
Writing to Heal or Journaling?
Although most people think of journaling when they hear about writing to heal, there are some key differences. Journaling can be used for therapeutic purposes but, by definition, journaling is more about regularly recording ideas, thoughts, and experiences.
For example, you may keep a food diary to find out how different foods affect your wellness. You may also record your daily exercise and sleep patterns to learn about your optimal rhythms for health. While these types of journals would be helpful for healing, (especially since nutrition, exercise, and rest are vital to your health), journaling is only one component of therapeutic writing.
Writing to heal purposely aims to address problems and wounds in order to heal them.
5 Types of Therapeutic Writing
This does not mean that all therapeutic writing is about trauma or painful memories. Some writing prompts and exercises for therapeutic writing encourage you to look for beauty, meaning, moments of goodness and love in the midst of emotional turmoil.
According to the Center for Journal Therapy, it is the “the purposeful and intentional use of reflective writing to further mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness.”
There are 5 main types of therapeutic writing, and each one has it’s own format, functions, and purpose.
Expressive writing is the type of writing most commonly used in reflective journaling. In expressive writing, you record the details of an event or experience that you want to heal from.
In this type of writing, you focus on your feelings and emotions about an event, over the details of the event. It’s often used by clinical therapists and peer support groups.
The healing happens when you are able to fully purge, or ex-press, your negative emotions in order to transform them.
Transactional writing is also called letter writing. This process asks you to write a letter to someone, real or imagined. You may also write a letter to yourself or some emotional component of yourself.
The letters are not meant to be sent or shared. It’s in the process of organizing your thoughts and articulating your feelings that you come to a healing resolution for yourself.
Feeling heard and validated aids in the healing process in transactional writin.
Poetry uses metaphor, analogy, rhythm, and sound to help us re-imagine our experiences. Used as a tool for healing, poetic writing becomes a place where chaotic fragments of memories find form and meaning.
You don’t really need to know how to write poetry in the traditional sense. Instead, poetry offers a blank canvas for experimenting with your story and develop new connections you hadn’t seen before.
It helps you heal through symbolism that resonates with your unconscious patterns and beliefs.
Affirmative writing is often used in wellness programs and is akin to positive self-talk or mantras. In affirmative writing, you write about where you want to be or describe the final resolution to your problem as a way to reprogram mental blocks you may have to healing.
Affirmations helps you heal by allowing you to envision positive outcomes, providing encouragement and motivation for positive change.
Also called Life Writing or Memoir Writing, legacy writing is about leaving behind a message for future generations. Legacy writing helps you to find the deeper meaning in your experiences. As you write about your life, you share from a future and wiser perspective, leaving behind notes about your lessons learned.
This type of writing is therapeutic in its process as you search for and create meaning. Legacy writing helps you find the overarching themes in your life that help you transcend painful moments.
Two Main Techniques for Writing to Heal
There are a variety of therapeutic writing styles and processes. However, they all have two main elements that make them effective.
The two main techniques in writing to heal are:
- Expressing emotions
Writing to Express Emotions
Expressing emotions is the foundation of all writing processes focused on emotional healing. Dr. Pennebaker’s Expressive Writing approach asks program participants to write about a traumatic event or memory. More than simply re-telling the details of what happened, the program encourages writers to specify their emotions:
How did you feel during the incident and how do you feel while writing about the incident?
Each of the therapeutic writing styles has a component of emotional expression that is key to the healing process. As you write about your emotions, you place them outside of you.
You are able to move beyond the trapped feeling of keeping emotions inside. By expressing emotions in your writing, you can observe and examine your emotional and spiritual state. This is where clarity and meaning begin to develop.
Writing for Self-Reflection
Beyond expressing your emotions, writing to heal requires that you reflect on your condition. Whatever it is that you want to heal is asking you to look closely at your underlying beliefs about yourself, about your experiences, and your way forward.
Self-reflection is the hardest part of any healing process. It is the part where you become aware of your own limited beliefs, your negative thought patterns, and your internal dramas. In reflective writing, you look closely at the source of your pain as you begin to change your relationship and reaction to that pain.
Expressing your difficult feelings without any efforts at self-reflection can only lead to a downward spiral of negative feelings. Both emotional expression and self-reflection are required for any chance to truly transform and heal.
How to Create Your Own Writing to Heal Program
There are a few structured programs for writing to heal, each with its own format. However, expressive and self-reflective writing is something that can be done on your own with a little bit motivation.
The main things to consider when creating your own healing process are:
- Do you feel ready to write about your problem or issue?
- Are you looking for a way to change your emotional response to the issue?
- Do you have a self-care routine that will help you get through the down feelings that may come from writing about a difficult event?
- Do you have a support system in place to help you through the difficult process of healing?
When you have answered yes to all of these questions, you are primed for deep healing. Then select the type of therapeutic writing you need the most right now.
While all of the writing styles could be helpful, there is usually one that really stands out for a particular problem.
Do you have something you want to say to someone? Perhaps a loved-one that has pass away. Maybe you want to tell your abusive step parent how they hurt you as a child. Maybe you want to ask for forgiveness from an old school friend. Then Transactional Writing might be best for your current situation.
Is there a letter you wish you could write to your younger self? Maybe you want to leave an inspiring account of your life for your great-great grand children about the trials you’ve overcome in this lifetime. Legacy Writing would be the most beneficial process for you right now. And so on.
No matter what style or process of writing you use, the first step is to choose healing.
When you begin to write with a focus on healing yourself, magic happens. Your soul stirs and the universe supports your decision to heal. Soon you’ll notice that, regardless of how you write, you begin to see new opportunities to heal and mend what feels broken.
This is the real magic in writing to heal.