By David Servan-Schreiber, Ode Magazine
Has your physician ever asked you to write about the worst day of your life? Probably not. Yet the Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a clinical study showing that writing can have a big impact on physical symptoms.
Patients suffering from asthma or rheumatoid arthritis were asked to describe the most difficult moments of their lives or simply write down their plans for the day. Four months later, patients who spent just 20 minutes a day for three days in a row writing about their problems felt better, took fewer drugs to relieve their symptoms and saw their doctors less often. If a pill could have such an effect after just three doses, no physician in the world would fail to prescribe it to all her patients.
“Writing is a form of therapy,” English author Graham Greene wrote in his autobiography, Ways of Escape. “Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear that is inherent in the human situation.”
But you don’t have to write a novel to be healed by words. Indeed, your words don’t even need to be read. Prescribing story writing for medical purposes is a time-honored way of treating post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive conditions. The obsessive images, the exaggerated emotions and the panic states that accompany them are often improved as a result. The patient’s task is to describe the details of the experience that haunts him or her. The simple act of putting the words down on paper often brings considerable relief. “It’s as if an enormous weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” a physician from Kosovo told me after writing about how he escaped from Serbian attacks in 1999.