The Power of Your Words

September 17, 2014

This week’s guest blogger is Susan Meyn, LPC, a support group facilitator for the Cancer Support Community’s online support groups. For more information on receiving online cancer support, click here. 

“Simple”; “available”; “inexpensive”; “helpful”— these descriptors tell us a lot about why expressive writing has gained so much attention in recent years. It’s comforting for someone facing a difficult medical diagnosis to have tools available to help modulate the wide variety of emotions that come with it. One of the tools that can help is writing—specifically “expressive writing”. Research over the last 30 years supports the health benefits of writing about emotions. Of course, people have actually been writing about their personal experiences for thousands of years. Maybe they all knew something that our researchers now know with more certainty.

A little historical perspective: Journals and diaries have recorded personal life experiences for centuries. But, using writing as a therapeutic tool has a shorter life span—roughly over the last half century. Ira Profoff, PhD created the “Intensive Journal” in the 1960s. His method is aimed at personal development, and provides a way to deepen your relationship with yourself. His workshops continue to this day.

Another psychologist and researcher, James Pennebaker, made a surprising discovery in the 1980’s when he researched the benefits of talking about difficult life situations and how this made a difference in a person’s wellbeing. In his experiment he asked the participants to write for 15 minutes a day for 4 days in a row. The participants were broken into two groups—one group writing about a traumatic event, and the other group writing about something superficial. Regarding that first experiment, Pennebacker said, “To my surprise, those who wrote about their traumas needed less medical attention in the following months than they had previously, and many said the writing changed their lives. Ever since then I’ve been devoted to understanding the mysteries of emotional writing.” (from Preface of “Writing to Heal). His book, Opening Up details much of his early research, and another book, Writing to Healprovides step-by-step guidelines on how to do this kind of writing.

Pennebaker uses the terms “expressive writing” and “emotional writing” interchangeably. The emphasis is on using writing to express the emotions that go on when encountering difficult life events at a deeper level than ordinary discourse. It’s important to write for yourself, and possibly not even share what you wrote with others.

Now, more than 30 years after that initial study, there is continued interest in how writing can be used to heal. The Writing Cure is a book devoted to illuminating a wide range of studies on expressive writing. In cancer related studies, some have found that participants who practiced expressive writing had fewer physical symptoms and medical appointments at a three-month follow-up. Some studies show improved sleep after participating in the writing exercises. The studies continue.

Want to try your hand at expressive writing? Check out these simple guidelines to by clicking here.

The Cancer Support Community offers support groups that meet online in a chat room. While not the same as journal writing, it’s still an opportunity for participants to express their feelings as they talk to other cancer patients or caregivers in their groups. Our groups are professionally facilitated, helping to encourage participants to look deeper into their own feelings as they talk to others facing similar challenges. These groups, too, provide another kind of “expressive writing”.

I hope you’ll consider using this simple, available, inexpensive, and helpful tool for yourself.