Does therapeutic writing help people with long term conditions? I believe it does, and I feel privileged to be working with the London-based STyLuS project team who are carrying out an 18-month project to get a bit nearer to the answer. The project was commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research as part of its Health Technology Assessment programme: HTA – 11/70/01: Does therapeutic writing help people with long term conditions? Systematic review, realist synthesis and economic modelling. You can find out more at this link: http://www.nets.nihr.ac.uk/projects/hta/117001
I can’t tell you how great it is to be working with the team on this project. Apart from working on a worthwhile topic with a bunch of lovely people, I am learning about aspects of research I had no idea about, e.g., how to do a systematic review, what is meant by realist review and programme theory. Most of all I am delighted to be able to put in a word for all the different kinds of therapeutic writing that are practised by me and others, but rarely or never the subject of research.
The ‘Pennebaker method’ has been researched over and over, but it is not the only way, and not even (I believe) the best way of doing therapeutic writing in most cases. A few researchers (such as Burton & King, 2004, 2009; East et al. 2010) have looked at other types of therapeutic writing, but nevertheless the systematic review being prepared by the STyLuS team is, I feel, bound to reflect the large body of work that has followed the ‘original’ Pennebaker method. I say ‘original’ Pennebaker method because I believe that J. W. Pennebaker has studied the effects of other kinds of therapeutic writing besides trauma writing, but it is his trauma writing paradigm that has been duplicated over and over.
Working with the team is making me look more closely at why I do what I do in my therapeutic writing groups, and the outcomes I’m hoping for from different types of writing. This led me to categorize different types of therapeutic writing into a small number of groups: mindful writing, positive writing, expressive writing, reflective writing, perspective shift writing, memory writing, random input and freewriting.
Below I list the types of writing I tend to use in different groups:
Psychiatric Intensive Care (PICU) – mindful, positive and, sometimes, random input writing;
Older People’s (OP) Mental Health Unit – mindful, positive and memory writing;
Working Age Adults Mental Health Unit – mindful, positive, perspective shift, random input and freewriting, and reflective writing;
Words for Wellbeing group aimed at anyone and everyone – all types of writing.
I use different types of writing in different groups because the people in the different mental health units are at different stages of illness/recovery, so I am looking for different outcomes. In PICU I am looking more for exercises that are calming and/or that increase mental focus. In the OP unit where people often have memory problems I am looking for exercises that reduce anxiety and evoke memories. In the other two groups I am hoping for additional outcomes such as broadening of cognitive focus or shifting perspective in some way.
The STyLuS project is due to complete around June this year but it will be some months after that before the final report is published. Members of Lapidus can read an article about the project in the Autumn 2013 issue of the Lapidus journal.
Burton C. M.; & King, L. A. (2004). The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences. Journal of Research in Personality, 38(2), 150-163.
Burton C. M.; & King, L. A. (2009). The health benefits of writing about positive experiences: The role of broadened cognition. Psychology and Health, 24(8), 867-879.
East, P.; Startup, H.; Roberts, C. & Smith, Schmidt, U. (2010). Expressive writing and eating disorder features: A preliminary trial in a student sample of the impact of three writing tasks on eating disorder symptoms and associated cognitive, affective and interpersonal factors. European Eating Disorders Review: The Journal of the Eating Disorders Association, 18(3), 180-196.