Words That Heal
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.
Brain research confirms the strange relationship between words and the neurological underpinnings of emotional trauma. In the brains of patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, memory of the event is accompanied by pronounced activation of the visual cortex and limbic system, which governs emotions and their manifestations in the body. The brain’s speech-production center is deactivated. It is as though an image of the trauma were permanently stamped on the brain. And because of the deactivation of the speech center, the memory seems incompatible with words. Indeed, “There are no words to describe what I’ve experienced” is something patients often say.
But deliberately turning these images into words can alter the way the experience is encoded in the brain. Verbalizing the trauma can shift the brain’s balance and help lessen the impact of uncontrolled emotions.
Psychoanalysis—“the talking cure”—has praised the liberating power of language for many years. But the role that private journals play has always been eclipsed by the importance of the analyst’s couch and, more recently, anti-depressant drugs like Prozac and Zoloft. I often recall my arrogance in laughing at a friend who claimed he didn’t need to undergo analysis because he’d been keeping a journal every day for 20 years.
Some enlightened practitioners, including Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, have always treated the private journal with a sense of respect. In The Artist’s Way, poet and author Julia Cameron outlines a program based on writing three pages immediately on awakening. The exercise is designed to unblock the artistic energy essential to personal and professional creativity.
Try it yourself. For the practice to be most effective, your journal needs to follow three simple rules. It must remain strictly personal; don’t read it to anyone, except perhaps your therapist. It must be honest; don’t waste any time lying to yourself. And it must be updated on a regular basis. That’s the real trick. Do your writing at times and at lengths that suit you—say, 20 minutes three times a week—and stick to your timetable with discipline and dedication. You’ll soon find that the journal itself takes over.