As you have probably gathered by now, I am passionate about writing for wellbeing. I have my own theories about what kinds of writing are helpful for what kinds of symptoms and have developed writing exercises I think work well in the mental health wards where I lead therapeutic writing groups.
I’ve read a lot – over a hundred – of articles about writing for health and wellbeing, a number of which were written (or co-authored) by James Pennebaker. Pennebaker really started off all the research into the therapeutic benefits of writing and his work has been hugely influential. However, his work has not so far infuenced my practice of therapeutic writing. You see, Pennebaker developed a writing protocol that involved writing about a past trauma and I have always felt that his method is not the right approach to take with people who are in a mental health ward and acutely unwell – the people I mainly work with. In my work in mental health wards I have been more influenced by the work of Laura King and her co-workers, who have shown that writing about postitive memories can be as beneficial or even more beneficial than writing about emotional trauma.
Today I listened to a thought-provoking programme on BBC Radio 4 about expressive writing that including comments from Pennebaker and other expressive writing practitioners. Link to programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rrc11
I listened to this radio programme with more interest because I have recently been re-reading many research articles, including some by Pennebaker, and have begun to look in a new light at the work done by Pennebaker and the many others who have followed a similar writing protocol in their research. I suppose the main reason for me opening up my mind more to Pennebaker’s method is because I am now working with new groups of people who are not inpatients in an acute mental health ward. If I continue to broaden the scope of my writing groups I can see that I may come across some people who could benefit from benefit from Pennebaker’s method. His method involves writing about (ideally) a previously undisclosed trauma for 20 minutes a day for THREE days. His method is about getting your feelings about the trauma down on paper over the 3 sessions and then stopping writing about it at that point. The time limits are important because to continue writing about the trauma day after day could re-inforce negative thoughts and lead to rumination and a negative effect on mental health and wellbeing.
I see now that my approaches to therapeutic writing do not contradict those of Pennebaker. It’s really not an either-or thing. Instead I think it is useful to think of the many different methods of writing for wellbeing as medicines in a medicine chest – the same medicine is not right for everyone, and the medicines that are right for an individual need to change as their symptoms change.
Do listen to the programme and please leave comments here if you do.
Best wishes, Carol.