Many people have already discovered the power of literature and writing reflectively – to help explore and process personal difficulties such as loss, illness or complex life-changes. Bibliotherapy, or the practice of prescribing self-help literature to patients with mental health concerns, has been used by GPs for some time. We may have kept a journal as teenagers, pouring our troubles out to our ‘Dear Diary’, to be read by another upon pain of death!
‘If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way’, wrote the poet Seamus Heaney, and getting things down on paper can be a cathartic experience. What’s more – if we can let words flow uncensored without conforming to form, structure or grammar, we can produce illuminating results, revealing thoughts and feelings that may have been lying just beneath the surface of our consciousness, a bit like opening a locked door and shining a light inside.
A study carried out by Nottingham University in March 2017 has produced fascinating results which indicate that writing about difficult things in our experience can even help heal wounds more quickly. Psychologists subjected volunteers to a 4mm puncture wound to their arms, then asked them to write about a traumatic experience or unresolved conflict in their lives, over several days. Findings suggest that there’s something about writing about emotional experiences that seems to have an effect on our immune system.
Speaking on Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’ mental health programme in April 2017 when the findings of the survey were reported, Professor Kadvita Vedhara said ‘if people have traumatic or unresolved issues, the process of managing them places not only a psychological, but also a physiological and autonomic load on the body, so the opportunity to write about them is a cathartic process, releasing the negative mood, and enhancing the role of the immune system’.
The beauty of reflective writing is its simplicity: all you need do is find a quiet spot, pick up a pen and start writing. A good exercise to begin with is a timed ‘stream of consciousness’ non-stop write for 5 minutes. Set a timer so you won’t be distracted by checking the time. Write whatever’s in your head, trying not to plan, or censor yourself. Thinking about it turns on the inner-critic! Give yourself permission to write anything. It’s impossible to get it wrong! Whatever you write will be right for you.
This kind of writing can give surprising results, as it offers access to our unconscious, as expressed by writer Joel Friedlander:
‘Where was it coming from? I was mystified, and stunned. Somehow this practice had connected to that deep stream of creativity we all have running, somewhere deep underground, and allowed it to manifest in writing’.
The Mind-Body Link
Therapeutic practice certainly reinforces the belief that the body and mind are linked and, as Psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall writes in her book on an analytical approach to psychosomatic illness, ‘Theatres of the Body’, ‘people react to psychological distress through somatic manifestations’ – meaning that, as in the Nottingham writing study – when we are carrying unprocessed psychological pain or unresolved conflict in our lives, it will eventually burden us with its weight, compromising our immune system, which opens us up to various physical symptoms or ailments. McDougall describes this as ‘when habitual psychological ways of coping are overwhelmed, and the body pantomimes the mind’s distress’.
How often do our physical ailments take us to the doctors, with a series of medical tests ensuing, on the quest to find an organic cause, when perhaps an openness to exploring what underlying psychological distress might have contributed towards burdening us and contributing to physical symptoms may open up possibilities for healing.