Arts / The Mental Health Issue

Writing for the Cure

November 15th, 2017

How Reading and Writing Can Aid in the Processing of Trauma.

There is never a foolproof way to process trauma or to make sense of struggling with mental illness. Studies do indicate however that expressive writing as well as fictional reading and writing can help in healing past trauma and can help create an understanding of the triggers of anxiety, PTSD, and depression. It is never comfortable living with any of these conditions. Personally, I understand the struggle most days, just getting out of bed, let alone thriving in the fast-paced world that seems built for someone else. This can cause a person to suffer mentally. Reading and writing have been a tremendous help for me, and studies seem to corroborate these findings. One study from Harvard Health reveals that expressive writing about the traumatic experience can lessen the emotional fallout from these experiences, but that it isn’t a cure-all method. Pairing thinking with expressing emotions about the traumatic event through writing can help organize thoughts and give meaning to the experience. The process of writing may also enable people to learn how to regulate their emotions better. Fostering this intellectual process of creating a story surrounding the trauma can potentially help others break free from the mental cycling that can occur after trauma. Opening up privately about these things can also give people more confidence to open up to others and seek social support that can aid in the healing process.

 

“Opening up privately about these things can also give people more confidence to open up to others and seek social support that can aid in the healing process.”

 

Dr James W. Pennebaker, who is currently the Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas, has conducted a lot of research on the subject. In one of his early studies, he asked 46 healthy college students to write about either a personally traumatic event or a trivial topic for 15 minutes on four consecutive days. For six months following this experiment, students who chose to write about the traumatic events visited the campus health centre less often and used pain relievers less frequently than those who wrote about trivial things. Most studies thus far have been conducted measuring the reduction in physically manifesting diseases after expressive writing. These conditions include sleep apnea, asthma, migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, and cancer. Most of the outcomes from these studies were physical, such as blood pressure and heart rate, which suggests that the initial process of writing may upset the individual, but eventually helps them to relax.

In more recent studies, researchers have evaluated whether writing helps reduce stress and anxiety. One study did have findings where it decreased stigma-related stress in gay men, and another study found that it benefited chronically stressed caregivers of adults. Other research at the University of Chicago, which could be useful for students, had found that anxious test-takers who wrote briefly about their feelings and thoughts before the exam earned better grades than those who did not. A lot of the findings in these fields of creative expression and mental health are still hard to fully measure, but whether it’s hard evidence, anecdotal, or correlative, it’s evident that expressive art can help many people lessen or make sense of their suffering.

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