Thursday, March 24, 2011

Writing to Heal - Part I

“Writing to heal” is a phrase and title of books, articles, and workshops I see repeatedly in my research about the health benefits of writing. I have personally experienced those healing benefits—emotional, spiritual, and physical—throughout my years of journaling, but especially during my cancer treatments from December 2003 through December 2004. (Five years later, my journal of that time became my book, Rebirth.)

When diagnosed with leukemia on December 18, 2003, I knew that my journaling would be an essential weapon in my healing arsenal. I used it to record all my medical information so that I could refer back to my notes should I have any questions or concerns; to assess the pros and cons of different treatment protocols; and to explore my emotions, which spanned the spectrum of fear, sadness, anger, joy, and hope. I wrote about dreams and goals and strategized plans for the future. I detailed my experiments using self-healing techniques such as guided imagery, affirmations, meditation, and prayer.

However, the greatest benefit came from mustering the courage to face past hurts and resentments, some that occurred decades ago that were still negatively affecting my life, mostly unconsciously. I was given many books about how biography can become biology, how holding onto past hurts and resentments can adversely affect our health. There is much research in this area, and though I’m not convinced I caused my leukemia, as a self-professed control-freak, this was a very empowering idea because if I made myself sick, then I could make myself well.

So I set out on, what I refer to as, the archeological dig into my past; much was uncovered. The entire essay, “I’m Enough,” is in Rebirth. Following is a brief excerpt:

Three childhood memories particularly stand out as contributing to my fractured ego: my best friend rejected me after she became a cheerleader, which translated in my mind to my no longer being popular or pretty enough to be her friend; a boy commented that my nose was big (I had no self-consciousness about my nose prior to that moment); and a friend’s grandmother gave me a backhanded compliment about how attractive I was at fifteen in spite of my “having been such a homely child” (I’d been homely?). These unkind actions and comments sparked the obsession with my appearance, which only intensified as I transitioned from grade school to high school. Reading fashion magazines and watching glamorous celebrities parading around on television made me achingly aware of my physical inadequacies. I longed to be one of the beautiful people and thus began a two-decade quest for the perfect makeover.

This quest included years of exercising, not out of the joy of moving my limbs and generating health but rather, to achieve a svelte, sculpted body. I failed at many diets because it was absurd for me to be on a diet in the first place.

Writing has always been an emotionally healing exercise for me, whether I was working through a conflict with a family member or friend, mending a broken heart, mourning the loss of a coveted role, or emotionally reeling from that tragic day on September 11, 2001. Writing was my emotional life-line through leukemia treatment and recovery. I named my journaling workshop for cancer survivors Writing for Your Life because during leukemia treatments I felt I was writing for my life. Furthermore, as my interest has grown in the field of writing and healing, I’ve discovered research conducted over the past two decades that support what I have experienced myself.

James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology, at the University of Texas, Austin, is widely accepted as the father of successful studies of the effects of writing on health. Some of the health benefits that he and other researchers have found include: reduction of blood pressure and stress, strengthened immune system, improvement in cognitive functioning, improvement of mood, improved lung function and liver function, decreased symptoms in asthma and arthritis, decreased pain and increased health in cancer patients, and fewer days in the hospital.

Writing is not only a tool for navigating through a physical illness, but it can help a person deal with the emotional upheaval associated with a traumatic event. For instance, in October 2010 the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) posted on their web site an article by Stephanie Rodrigues Melson, “Writing to Overcome Trauma,” that reveals how writing and blogging* have helped servicemen and women deal with the emotional and physical stressors of combat, or of working in a war zone, and how it is a form of therapy., one of the largest blogging sites for American servicemembers, listed 2,136 military blogs in 44 countries as of October 2010.

I am a huge proponent of writing about one’s experiences, of transforming internal energy and thoughts into external expression. The healing benefits of expressive writing will be explored during my Creative Writing Workshop at the OMG! NYC 2011 4th Annual Cancer Summit for Young Adults on April 17. There will be a presentation followed by written exercises. As an added treat, Lisa Bernhard, journalist and co-host of The Stupid Cancer Show, will stop by to share her experiences with writing and healing. For information about the conference (April 16-17), visit

*James W. Pennebaker cautions that research on the benefits of writing have not included blogging.

If interested in reading more about this topic, check out Dr. Pennebaker’s article Writing to Heal.

Stay tuned for Part II…