Some people write for pleasure. The creative urge within them goads them to put pen to paper and churn out readable fiction on various topics like romance, horror, crime or science. It is something compulsive. As one writer said, “I write for the same reason that I breathe, because if I didn’t do it I would die.”
Non-fiction writers cover a wide range of subjects. They have something to say about contemporary issues or anything they feel strongly about.
There are others who have made writing their profession. They write to sell.
But there are many others who write to relieve emotional tension. Their journals become their private confessionals. They write about deeply moving topics like relationships, bereavement, anger, estrangement, divorce and other traumas – things they would be too embarrassed to speak about. Negative thoughts if allowed to accumulate and fester in the mind, affect every aspect of life, physical, mental or spiritual. Writing about them brings emotional release from their pain. The process proves cathartic.
A wonderful example of the therapeutic effects of writing is seen in the Diary of Anne Frank. She and her family of eight people, hid in a cramped claustrophobic attic for two whole years during the German occupation of Holland. Anne was just a young teenager with no outlet for her emotions. Between the ages of 13-15, the only way she could give vent to her emotions was through the daily outpourings in her diary. She wrote sensitively about the situation they were in; about her relationship with her parents and the growing awareness of her sexuality.
Addressing her diary she wrote, “I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before. And I hope that you will be a great comfort and support to me.”
It was probably the writing of this diary that kept her sane during those difficult years.
“I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie deep in my heart……The reason I am starting my diary is because I have no real friend.”
There are people who have written beautiful songs and music when working through their pain. The 30-year war in Europe was followed by severe depression, and then by the great Plague. A German pastor Marin Rinkhert buried 8000 people from his congregation including his wife and son. He did not let his profound grief cripple him. Instead, he poured out his pain into a beautiful paean of praise to God. “Now thank we all our God” is sung even today in churches all over the world. He was able to continue his work for the next eleven years.
Many major literary works have been written under conflict. Eugene O’Neill wrote “A long day’s journey into night” under such circumstances. Alexander Solzhenitsyn when imprisoned in a Russian forced labour and concentration camp (Gulag) wrote his semi biographical novel ‘Cancer Ward‘ in such a place.
A German shepherdess Joanna Ambrosias when laid low by poverty, poured out her heart’s distress into touching poems. This reduced her anxiety and fear of where her next meal would come from.
R.L.Stevenson and Katherine Mansfield when suffering from ill health, isolation and unhappiness, wrote their best literary works.
Psychologists have recognized the benefits of writing as a form of therapy for psychoneurotic illnesses which follow traumatic events such as bereavement, loss of job, divorce and other stressful situations. Dr. James W. Pennebaker was the first to advocate writing as “a self help strategy for coping with stress.” He conducted tests on college students, by making them write about any traumatic experience or life-changing incident for fifteen minutes every day for four consecutive days.
He tested the effects of writing by specific markers like antibody levels, T-lymphocytes, enzyme levels, behavioural studies and muscular activities. Blood tests were done before and after the assignments. He was assisted by Janice Glazer a clinical psychologist and Ronald Glazer an immunologist. Pennebaker found that those who lived through their trauma as they wrote, and gave vent to the feelings they experienced during the incident, were able to find emotional release from pain, anger or hostility, much better than those who merely stated facts. Heightened immune function was also recorded, which persisted for almost six weeks after their writing episodes. As a result, physical illness and visits to the doctor were decreased.
Leslie Ridgeway and Dale Griffiths used writing as therapy for inmates of York Correctional Institute, Connecticut. They found that healing took place when the inmates unburdened themselves of their hurts through writing.
Of course there are many critics who insist that writing is an art not science, and writing therapy ‘smacks of Pop psychology.’
Two Therapeutic Effects of Writing:
• Writing about traumatic events helps get negative emotions out of the mind. What appeared overwhelming does not seem so threatening anymore.
• It brings peace of mind and healing.
• It improves physical and mental health.
• It reduces anxiety and depression.
• The process of analyzing one’s feelings gives a better perspective of the incident.
• The event loses its power to cause pain or anger, and gives a sense of closure.
Diffusing anger becomes easier if one can write it out. Some people have difficulty in verbalizing their anger. Writing relieves them of the damaging feelings they carry inside. Writing also prevents people from using harsh words that can never be recalled. Getting rid of anger through expression in writing helps let go of resentment.
Because of the positive effects on the immune system, there is a general sense of well being and less likelihood of psychosomatic complaints.
If writing is to be therapeutic it cannot merely be reportorial. Putting problems down on paper is far more effective than brooding over them. The incident must be recalled vividly, expressing one’s pain, anger or sadness. Working through these negative emotions will diffuse the stranglehold of that incident and offer the freedom to move on.