In the tool kit for managing the distress and trauma of a cancer diagnosis, have you ever considered the role of writing therapy?
In a world where oncologists rarely mention exercise or nutrition, I’m not expecting cancer specialists to be prescribing journaling or free writing exercises to their patients any time soon.
But there is a compelling body of evidence that writing therapy provides a safe, effective and low-cost intervention to help cancer patients and others processing trauma to regain a sense of control, to reframe traumatic events and make a kind of peace with their circumstances.
In a 2021 study – Writing Your Way To Well-being – conducted by writer Catherine Deveney and clinical psychologist Patrick Lawson, nine people were led through a series of writing exercises to assist them in processing traumatic events in their lives.
Importantly, subjects were led in a writing exercise that covered their personal themes or issues but in a fictional narrative, to allow them to externalise their trauma, to enjoy a sense of playfulness and control to invent characters, re-write scenarios and provide new perspectives on their circumstances.
Like numerous studies in this field, the results were encouraging:
This study suggests creative writing has unique benefits for psychological therapies, quite separate from the proven benefits of expressive writing. These include the cognitive processing of trauma and emotional difficulties in a gentle yet beneficial way. Writers hand over their real-life personal issues to imaginary characters and, in the process, find an increased sense of detachment and objectivity, a changed perspective and new levels of self-empathy, catharsis and healing. The immersive process of writing, and the creation of a fictional narrative that uses real experience, allows patients to focus on their difficulties in a safe and positive way.
Participants were encouraged to step their way up to writing about their trauma gradually, to avoid retraumatising themselves, in a series of four writing exercises:
- The creation of a character that was not the participant but shared their issue or experience.
- The low point the character faced.
- The triumph of the character.
- An exercise in writing in the first person as the character, before writing autobiographically as themselves and ‘owning’ the issue.
A psychologist was at hand for support should any of the participants require it, but no one required their services. The researchers concluded:
Creative writing can be used as a useful self-help tool for patients between sessions, as a focused preparation for analysing particular emotions and events in a therapy session, and as a discussion tool in the therapy session itself, allowing patients to analyse their emotions and discuss them with increased clarity, safety and detachment. The study found a decrease in general anxiety scores amongst participants and an increased sense of general well-being, suggesting this has interesting possibilities as a low-cost intervention for those suffering from low-level anxiety and depressive disorders.
I’ve been researching this topic, because I’ve been asked to conduct a writing workshop through the Byron Writers Centre in May, focussed on “writing as catharsis”, a fancy name for writing therapy. Personal writing has been an important tool for me in processing my own cancer diagnosis and I’d like to think I have something of value to share in this area. If you’re within striking distance of Northern NSW on May 6 I’d love to see you there.
A few caveats. Tapping into trauma can be triggering and participants are urged to examine the level to which they are comfortable in taking their writing. There is no suggestion here that writing for catharsis can or should take the place of qualified mental health care or counselling.
I do feel confident in saying, participants will leave with the tools to pursue their own writing as catharsis, whether as therapy, for publication or simply to better understand the circumstances they find themselves in.
Details here: https://byronwritersfestival.com/whats-on/writing-as-catharsis-with-tim-baker/
Deveney, C., & Lawson, P. (2022). Writing your way to well-being: An IPA analysis of the therapeutic effects of creative writing on mental health and the processing of emotional difficulties. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 22, 292- 300. https://doi.org/10.1002/capr.12435
About the Author
Tim was diagnosed with Stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.