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Writing helps you to calm down and feel better, says new research

Posted Feb 19 2009 6:29pm 1 Comment

My friend and colleague, the hypnotherapist Michael Ellner, has just brought t his very interesting article in The Times to my attention.

The article looks at new research that suggests that: ‘Writing about a distressing or upsetting experience can help to reduce stress
by changing the way the brain deals with negative emotions.’

The act of putting feelings into words is often cathartic because it helps the
brain to control regions where emotions such as fear and disgust are
processed, scientists have discovered.

The article states:

‘The research could also be medically useful, as it suggests that writing
therapy could help people suffering from psychological conditions such as
social anxiety disorder, phobias or post-traumatic stress. “We do think it has clinical implications,” Dr Lieberman said.’

Yes, yes, yes!

I have been working using writing in health care for nearly ten years now and I am convinced that it has clinical implications. I continually see the transformation that writing can bring about in people.

The research team for thus particular study, led by Matthew Lieberman, at the University
of California, Los Angeles, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain to look at what happens when we write about our emotions. It suggests that the act of writing about distressing experiences can activate the right ventrolateral prefrontal
cortex, the brain’s ‘catharsis centre,’ which then regulates negative feelings by  suppressing activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that processes negative emotions such
as fear.

So what does all this brain science actually mean for the field of writing for personal development, health and well-being?

Well, Dr Lieberman explains:

Our hypothesis is that this is an unintentional form of emotion regulation. The way we’ve approached this is by looking at the brain, because if you ask people they don’t think that
putting feelings into words serves much of a regulatory function. But when you look at the brain it looks a whole lot like emotion regulation is going on when people put emotions into words.

We see this pattern again and again. What it boils down to is the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which seems to be involved in all different forms of self-control and self-regulation. It appears that if you get this region activated, even if you’re not trying to get it activated, it still
has regulatory consequences. Putting feelings into words is one of the things that turns this region on, and therefore has regulatory benefits.

Hmmm… Very interesting.

I work with people all the time who tell me that suddenly they just woke up in the middle of the night and found themselves writing a poem, or that they found it useful to keep a journal during or after a difficult emotional time in their lives, having not written since school. I think many people do recognise instinctively that there is something beneficial about writing out their emotions.

This new research gives us another tantalising glimpse into what may be happening in our mind-body when we write. But this is only half of the story…

The article goes on to say:

‘The researchers have yet to conduct experiments on people who keep diaries, but Dr Lieberman said that this was likely to be another way in which people activate the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and thus control their negative thoughts.


It’s certainly one of the inspirations,” he said. “I think that diaries probably serve as a form of daily regulation for those individuals. I would caution, though, that it probably depends on the way in which you write about these feelings.’

And this is what my ongoing work and research is about. I’ve been looking at ‘the way in which you write about these feelings,’ investigating the techniques and approaches that are most helpful for particular groups of people.

My Online Programme in Creative Writing for Personal Development, Health and Wellbeing guides people through a six month process, providing tools and techniques that can help people to continue to use writing in this way. Celia Hunt’s research at the University of Sussex also investigates what is helpful and beneficial, what works and what doesn’t.

Wonderful to see this article and the research being highlighted in this way. This is just the beginning of a very exciting new field of writing as medicine. If you are a practitioner using writing or interested in using writing, or someone who’d like to find out more, why not join our growing community over at http://community.wordsauce.com. We’d love to meet you.

Comments (1)
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