Narrative therapy is a relatively new way to process and recover from traumatic experiences.
As a longtime lover of keeping a journal, I know firsthand the benefits of personal, expressive writing. Although I certainly get a “high” from writing more polished works for the general public (i.e. peaceful dumplings!), there is a distinct feeling that accompanies journal /diary writing—even if it’s not done in a journal notebook or even considered an “entry.”* I’m certainly not unique in this experience.
It seems like a natural instinct to write about difficult times in a private, unscrutinized setting. When something bad happens, or we relive a dark moment from our past, we may experience the urge to vent to someone. Concerning especially rough experiences, however, we may feel too embarrassed to share with an actual person. In contrast, we can express whatever we want on a blank page and still feel that, in some way, we’ve been heard. Our pain has been acknowledged. As it turns out, this feeling and its attendant benefits have been documented by psychologists.
According to a 2005 study, writing about stressful and traumatic events improves participants’ physical and psychological health. Those who wrote about neutral topics did not experience the same benefits. In this study, individuals wrote three to five times a day and for 15-20 minutes per sitting. The prompt (for the writers writing about trauma) instructed participants to write about their deepest thoughts related to the most traumatic event in their lives. The writers were encouraged to disregard concerns about grammar and mechanics.
Both the immediate and longer-term results of the exercise are notable: “The immediate impact of expressive writing is usually a short-term increase in distress, negative mood and physical symptoms, and a decrease in positive mood.” (So it may make you feel a little crummy at first!) It gets better, though. Participants could enjoy significant longer-term benefits, including fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, improved immunity, reduced blood pressure, improved liver function, improved mood, higher GPAs (for students), improved working memory, quicker re-employment after job loss, and fewer post-traumatic intrusions—among others!
The study goes on to suggest that specific medical conditions may also benefit from regular expressive writing. Asthmatics may experience improved lung function, poor sleepers may sleep better, and cancer patients may experience reduced pain—to name a few.**
The reason behind all of the benefits? The researchers suggest that contrary to what we may initially assume, emotional catharsis is not likely to occur with expressive writing since we usually feel a little bit worse during the writing process. Rather, cognitive processing, which involves developing a coherent narrative about the past and one’s identity, allows writers to “reorganize and structure traumatic memories, resulting in more adaptive internal schemas.” In other words, it can improve the way people feel about themselves in relation to the people and the world around them. This is especially true when writers employ more positive-emotion words and “cognitive mechanism” words (the latter may include “understand,” “realize,” “reason,” and “because”).
In one more extreme iteration of this exercise, sociologist Martha Beck encourages people to participate in narrative therapy in which participants rewrite their life stories, emphasizing a positive interpretation of events. “I’m not suggesting that you deny the pain and misfortune in your life,” she explains, “the important thing is to tell yourself a life story in which you, the hero, are primarily a problem solver rather than a helpless victim. This is well within your power, whatever fate might have dealt you.” The idea is that when you “rewrite” your past, you can start to internalize a more positive view of yourself within the context of what you experienced.
I decided to give it a shot. Admittedly, I felt a little corny doing it, but I surprised myself by finding the positive in even my worst experiences. For example, in discussing my slew of, let’s say, “problematic” college boyfriends, I wrote, “After dating a handful of story-worthy characters…” I did get some good stories! I went on to acknowledge that my difficult experiences helped my realize what I wanted from my relationships.
After learning about the study discussed above, I went through my journal to witness my own cognitive processing in action. (Something must be happening since writing is like therapy for me!) Going over my organic entries (those that weren’t an exercise), I realized that I do use some positive-emotion and cognitive mechanism words, even when I’m talking about something less than cheerful. Here’s an example:
“In a lot of ways, I have let him go. But I recognize that a part of me wants to keep the memories close, if only to remind me how much I’ve been through, the beauty of hurting…”
Okay—enough snippets of my dramatic little diary! Hopefully, you get the idea 😉
Now, it’s your turn! Adapted from narrative therapy guru Dr. James Pennebaker, here is an exercise in narrative therapy that you can try:
For the next four days, set aside 15-30 minutes to write about your deepest feeling regarding a traumatic incident. Stick to the same incident over the course of the four days.
Although your interpretation of the events is up to you, aim to record the facts as accurately as memory allows.
Write down the emotions you experienced (and may still experience).
Consider the way your mind has formed relationships between the event and other parts of your life (i.e. your childhood, your parents, your dating patterns).
Write freely—no one needs to see this.
Have you tried writing therapy?
*By the way, blogging is good for you, too!
**Sadly, a review of the literature notes that certain groups may not experience significant benefits from expressive writing when compared to control groups, including females writing about body image, children of alcoholics, caregivers of chronically ill children, grieving individuals, and students on suicide watch. This type of writing may even be detrimental for survivors of child abuse.
Related: The Best Writing Tip I Ever Received
Why Anyone Can Benefit from Therapy
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Photo: Florian Klauer via Unsplash