Cancer is a shocking, life-changing experience. It can trigger severe emotions that are difficult for many people to process and verbally articulate. Through research and experience, however, I’ve found that writing can be an extremely effective alternative to talk therapy. It’s a highly therapeutic form of expressive therapy that helps people release thoughts and feelings, and pushes them further along the path to being healthy.
How it Works
Repressed, bottled-up emotions put the body in a state of stress, which can lead to depression and anxiety as well as disrupt the immune system. And when the immune system suffers, healing is impossible. Writing can provide a safe outlet to share these hidden emotions, which will, in turn, relax the body, reduce stress and bolster the immune system—optimizing the potential to heal.
Studies have proven the effectiveness of writing therapy time and again. In 2013, for example, researchers from the National Institutes of Health found that creative arts therapies – including writing – significantly reduced anxiety, depression and pain, and improved the quality of life in cancer patients.
Another study found that women with breast cancer who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings reported the fewest symptoms and had the fewest unscheduled visits to their doctors. Similar benefits in reducing symptoms and improving physical function were found in a study of people with kidney cancer who did expressive writing exercises. And yet another study showed even one 20-minute writing session may be enough to change the way people with cancer think and feel about their disease almost immediately.
The precise reasons why writing is so effective differ depending on who you ask, but everyone can agree writing helps people process and express emotions, articulate their goals, and better cope with their cancer.
So, you want to try writing, but where do you start? I like to suggest these three writing forms to my patients and let them choose what’s most appealing to them.
Free Writing (Journaling)
Many people find writing freely in a journal is an easy, approachable way to release their feelings. Studies have shown that gratitude journals in particular – which focus on the good rather than the bad – spur many benefits, including increased immune system functioning; amplified positivity, joy, optimism and generosity; and fewer feelings of isolation.
While there’s no right or wrong way to journal, here are a few thoughts to get you going:
- Pick the right journal for you. Some people prefer good old-fashioned pen and paper, while others feel more comfortable with computers, tablets or smartphones. Choose the journaling medium that makes it easiest for you to write comfortably.
- Make it routine. Choose a time when you feel inspired, and use it to write a little every day. You might find you prefer jotting down your thoughts in the morning to provide a fresh start to each day, or you might discover you enjoy writing in the evenings as a way to wind down before bed. Either way, try to write a little at the same time every day to create a healthy habit.
- Dig deep. Avoid using your journal to simply list the day’s events or create to-do lists for tomorrow. Instead, delve into your hopes, fears, goals, triumphs and tribulations. Resist self-censoring or obsessing over your grammar, too. No one will be grading your work!
In Chinese, the written character for “poem” or “poetry” comprises two characters: one meaning “word” and the other meaning “temple.” In other words, poetry is a temple for words and an amazing tool in writing therapy.
According to The National Association for Poetry Therapy, the definition of poetry therapy is “the intentional use of the written and spoken word to facilitate healing, growth and transformation.” While most of us don’t typically write poems, doing so in times of stress can be beneficial, as the circumstances might overwhelm ordinary language. Poetry gives people an opportunity to properly express these monumental emotions.
Dr. Rafael Campo, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, uses poetry in his practice, offering therapy groups and including poems with the medical forms and educational materials he gives his patients. He explains in a New York Times article:
“It’s always striking to me how they [patients] want to talk about the poems the next time we meet and not the other stuff I give them. It’s such a visceral mode of expression. When our bodies betray us in such a profound way, it can be all the more powerful for patients to really use the rhythms of poetry to make sense of what is happening in their bodies.”
Poetry allows people to get to the core of how they’re feeling and helps them deal with their fears.
If you’re my age, you remember when letters were handwritten on stationery, postmarked and sent in the mail. While emails are much more prevalent today, there’s a still a place for good old-fashioned letters.
Among the positive benefits of letter writing are the ability to express emotions, gratitude and other feelings that may be difficult to verbalize when you’re face-to-face with someone. Writing, as compared to speaking, allows you to take your time to reflect on what you want to say and carefully craft exactly how you want to say it. And there’s something extra therapeutic about taking a pen to paper.
Researchers have studied the benefits of writing letters of gratitude and found that people reported increased levels of happiness and reduced feelings of depression after incorporating letter writing into their weekly routine.
I’d encourage everyone to write a few letters to people who’ve supported them throughout their cancer journeys and reap the emotional benefits. I’d also encourage everyone to try their hand at journaling and poetry, too. And be sure to let me know your experience.
Now, write on!