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The Potential For Writing To Facilitate Catharsis

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For years, therapists have prescribed writing therapy to patients suffering mental anguish as a tool for expression of feelings, and a way to unburden the mind. There have been several studies published which prove the benefits of writing for therapeutic purposes. The goal of writing therapy is to provide a catharsis for people, and the evidence shows that this is precisely what takes place. Writing has the potential to facilitate growth of opinions and beliefs (Elbow, 1985). The purpose of this essay is to explore the ways in which writing provides a catharsis for people, and the profound effects that writing can have on ones mental well-being. The benefits of writing for helping to heal emotional trauma, for the elderly, and for people with sleep disorders will be discussed further.

James Pennebaker (1990), as cited by Moran (2004), pioneered the study of the healing effects of writing. In the early 1980s, Pennebaker conducted a study in which four groups of students were asked to write for fifteen minutes a day, for four days consecutively (Moran, 2004). The control group was asked to write about a topic that was trivial (Moran, 2004). The other three groups were asked to write about personal, traumatic events that had taken place in their lives (Moran, 2004). One of these groups was asked to only describe their emotions about the event, not to narrate the facts; another group was asked to describe just the facts of the experience, not their emotions; and finally, the third group was asked to narrate the facts as well as to describe their emotions (Moran, 2004).

The results of the study suggested that there was both a psychological and a physiological benefit to writing therapy (Moran, 2004). Four months after the study, the students in the group that were asked to write down both feelings and facts about the traumatic event reported feeling more positive, and happier than they felt before the experiment (Moran, 2004). There was also a 50% drop in the number of visits to the school health centre for these students, while the other three groups showed no change in number of visits to the health centre (Moran, 2004).

Since this experiment, several others have taken place in an attempt to try to determine how and why there are such dramatic psychological and physiological benefits with writing therapy, or “disclosure” writing as Pennebaker refers to it (Moran, 2004). Factors such as heart rate, skin conductivity, blood pressure, left and right brain hemisphere activity, and immunological functioning have been looked at by psychologists (Moran, 2004). Some of the benefits of writing therapy include fewer visits to the doctor (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986 as cited by Harvey & Farrell, 2003), fewer days absent from school or work, improved liver enzyme function (Francis & Pennebaker, 1992 as cited by Harvey & Farrell, 2003), better coping abilities after the loss of a job (Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker, 1994 as cited by Harvey & Farrell, 2003), and a stronger immune system (Esterling, Antoni, Kumar, & Schneiderman, 1994 as cited by Harvey & Farrell, 2003).

The exact reasons that make writing so effective in helping people psychologically as well as physiologically are still largely a mystery (Bootzin, 1997 as cited by Harvey & Farrell, 2003), however, Moran (2004) believes that some of the factors that contribute to the positive effects of writing seem to be: 1) creating a narrative for an event is a way of understanding it, and finding meaning in it; 2) confronting fear and painful memories habituates the person to it, and therefore robs the event of its power; 3) communicating the event through words on paper legitimizes it, meaning that it gives it a name and makes the writer feel like she/he is not alone because it is something that society has recognized; and 4) the very act of writing objectifies the event, and it is viewed from a different perspective, which helps one resolve their issues in relation to the incident. The latter point is similar to Elbow’s belief that writing without planning, or ephemeral writing (which could be classed as journal or diary writing), immerses us into the language and therefore gives us a perspective that we could not have otherwise (Elbow, 1985). Elbow (1985) notes that writing transforms thought. It would make sense that the transformation of thoughts would facilitate a healing process.

Pennebaker (1997), as cited by Harvey & Farrell (2003), notes that there are two theories which may account for the effectiveness of writing therapy: “that writing about emotions reverses emotional inhibition and facilitates emotional processing and that writing facilitates cognitive changes that increase insight,” (Harvey & Farrell, 2003, p. 116). Pennebaker’s theories seem to be the most logical, which is not surprising given the fact that he is the pioneer of research into writing therapy, and one of the foremost experts in the field.

Jeannie Wright (2005) is a therapist in Nottingham, UK and an advocate for writing therapy. She is a self-proclaimed habitual writer, using journals and diaries for herself as well as her patients. In her article, Using Writing in Brief Therapy, Wright shares a case study of a woman named “Lyn” (not her real name); Lyn was skeptical about the idea of writing therapy, but agreed to try it during a particularly difficult time in her life (Wright, 2005). She broke down in tears at her workplace one day, and a colleague suggested that Lyn should take advantage of the company counseling service since it had been a great help to her in the past (Wright, 2005).

The source of Lyn’s suffering was an imbalance in her relationships with her family members (Wright, 2005). Lyn was overextending herself, and felt as though her feelings were never considered (Wright, 2005). She did not feel free to express her anxieties regarding issues such as the rage that she felt toward her daughter’s boyfriend (Wright, 2005). Lyn described feeling the need to constantly “bite her tongue”, which ultimately led to a lot of pent up anger and frustration (Wright, 2005, p.28).

Lyn found “unsent letter writing” (Wright, 2005, p. 28) particularly useful. She would describe her frustration, write a letter to the person that caused the frustration, then tear the letter into shreds (Wright, 2005). She described writing therapy as her salvation, noting that it helped her to put things into perspective (Wright, 2005). In fact, when Lyn’s therapy sessions were finished, she continued to keep a journal to help her deal with the day-to-day struggles that she faced (Wright, 2005).

Wright (2005) also discusses why she believes

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