The healing power of writing


02 August 2017
woman-writing-in-cafe-06577.jpg The Healing Power of Writing
How creative and expressive writing can calm your mind and improve your wellbeing

Creative and expressive writing can help to calm the mind and increase feelings of wellbeing. Many of us have already discovered the healing power of literature and writing, especially when facing loss, change, or coping with other life-challenges, writes counsellor Jo Bisseker Barr.

The husband of murdered MP Jo Cox spoke about how he was helped by advice from psychologists to write, in order to help him process his loss; he found himself writing about ‘her voice, her message, and things that she cared about’.

Through childhood and teenage years, we may have discovered that getting things down in black and white can have a soothing effect, pouring our painful experiences and feelings into a secret diary, kept under lock and key, to be read by another on pain of death. GPs have also been prescribing ‘bibliotherapy’– which recommends self-help literature to patients experiencing mental health issues – for some time, but the notion of creative writing for well-being taps into a newly emerging area of writing for self-care and personal development.

The effects of ‘getting it out’ can be both powerful and illuminating, and those who practice expressive writing regularly say it can help to spark the imagination, releasing both personal and creative limitations. Regular ‘free-writing’ (see exercise below) can also be focusing and meditative, promoting mindfulness and helping us to be kinder to ourselves.

Overcoming the inner critic

The process of putting words to paper has deep associations with school-days, where we were judged on correct grammar, punctuation and form. Almost as soon as we learn to express ourselves through writing, our ‘inner-critic’ is switched on, censoring creativity. Anyone who writes for a living has experienced the frustration of ‘writer’s block’, unleashing all kinds of unhelpful inner-chatter that can rubbish our abilities. Yet if we can allow our creativity to flow unedited, a developing body of research shows that expressive writing helps not only to increase well-being, it can even assist the healing of physical wounds.

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A study carried out by Nottingham University in March 2017 subjected volunteers to a 4mm puncture wound to their upper arms, then asked them to write about a traumatic experience or unresolved conflict in their lives, over several days. Findings suggest writing about emotional experiences has a positive effect on our immune system. 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’.

Find your flow

Freed up from the restrictions of ‘proper writing’, what we produce on the page taps into a creative and authentic voice that may sit just out of reach of our conscious, critical minds.  Free-writing’s greatest asset is its simplicity: just write, without thinking, but with an openness and curiosity to see what unfolds when you get things down in black and white.


EXERCISE: The Five Minute Free-write

This is a good exercise to start with each day, like stretching before a work-out. Find a quiet place, away from electronic devices. Breathe deeply and calm your mind. This links to mindfulness practice, cultivating a calm space where awareness is brought to the present moment, in this case -  through the act of writing:

Write non-stop for 5 minutes. Write whatever’s in your head, trying not to plan, or censor yourself. Thinking about it turns on the inner-critic! Don’t worry about structure, spelling or grammar.

Give yourself permission to write anything, it’s impossible to get it wrong. Whatever you write will be right for you.

You may find that your free-writing reveals hidden thoughts, feelings, or takes you down surprising paths. You may want to develop on what emerges with further free-writing – or simply throw it away. The choice is yours as the writing is for your eyes alone.

About the author
Counsellor and Writing for Wellbeing practitioner Jo Bisseker Barr has worked with words for much of her life, and tries to write every day. She has developed ‘Write your Mind’ workshops which she runs from her home and counselling practice, set in tranquil gardens in the middle of the New Forest.