Friday, October 28, 2011

Expressive Writing and Dignity Therapy

A few weeks ago a friend, who suffers from dehabilitating migraine headaches, had “the mother of all headaches” to paraphrase General Norman Swartzkopf . The pressure in her brain was so severe that her doctor diagnosed “a brain bleed.” She temporarily lost some speech and experienced fatigue. Another migraine of greater intensity struck a few days later. The treatment will surprise you.

When released from the hospital, her doctor told her to go home and write! He said that exercising the brain was the best cure for the injury caused by the bleeding. As the days progressed and her strength built up, she wrote up to eight hours a day. It worked. She recovered all her brain function quickly and was back to leading a group of writers. For this woman, like Larry L. Laws, of our October 26, 2011 post, writing was the avenue to healing.

James Pennebaker, Ph.D. conducted a study to determine if there were benefits of writing about traumatic experiences in life, preferably something the participants had not talked about to others. It is called "expressive writing." He was looking to see if the translation of emotion into language would benefit people. His conclusion was that indeed it did. In his book Opening Up:The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker found that most participants in the study found themselves to have reduced anxiety and decreased grieving about the incident. (He warns this type of writing can have a rebound effect if one is sad, depressed or suicidal.)

A decade ago a psychiatrist in Canada, Harvey Chochinov, developed "dignity therapy" for those patients involved in the act of dying through illness or the result of trauma. It is growing in favor because the method produces wonderful results. "Patients reported a higher quality of life and will to live after participating in dignity therapy when asked such questions as 'What are the most important roles you had in your life?' 'What have you learned about life that you would want to pass along to others?'" In an article by Jonathan Sherman in USA Today on July 7, 2011, he quoted from Lancet Oncology that 68% of patients also reported an increased sense of purpose and 67% said they felt an increased sense of meaning after participating in the exercise. They wanted their thoughts written down not kept via audio technology because they felt the messages written would have more impact if they would not sound so sick. They were comforted by knowing they had created something lasting beyond themselves.

There are numerous sites on writing expressively and healing, not just dignity therapy. Expressive writing used by cancer patients, traumatized people, and those facing chronic health problems benefit from writing. The writing doesn't have to be about you and your illness. Any writing is helpful. Peggy Tabor Millin on her web site, CharityWorks, says that "Writing moves us toward understanding and resolution." In When Words Heal:Writing Through Cancer, Sharon Baker states that the writing cannot be just venting. The greatest benefit comes when we write a story with structure, causal explanation, repetition of themes, a balanced narrative, and awareness of a listener's perspective."

Larry Laws, Drs. Pennebaker and Chochinov, my friend and bloggers on many websites about writing, tell us that writing, in any form, can be cathartic, helpful, enlightening, sobering, funny, good for healing our bodies and minds, transitive to the next generation, hard work and fun. Why do you write?

Miguel de Cervantes: "The pen is the tongue of my mind."
Joan Didion: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."


Jan Cline said...

Oh wow, you gotta love that! Our minds and bodies are pretty fascinating things. Great information!

elizabethbrinton said...

Wonderful! I would like to explore this further. The research is fascinating.

Jennifer Rova said...

Jan and Elizabeth...I was educated as an occupational therapist and am impressed that these new types of therapy have been developed. I had no idea expressive writing and dignity therapy were in practice and beneficial until I did the research for this blog. Both are good avenues of writing to practice or share with others. Glad you enjoyed the blog.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Wonderful blog, Jennifer ! Helpful information for many,especially those is pain

Jennifer Rova said...

Thanks, Kathy. It is nice to have some of these pieces of information tucked away for a friend in need or for ourselves. Writing is good for SO many reasons. I wish care givers of all professions would make more use of its soothing powers.