Writing Is Good Medicine
By Lisa Lorden
Editor's Note: Lisa Lorden, a CFIDS and fibromyalgia patient from California, is a well-known writer. This article originally appeared at the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia site of About.com, where Lisa was the guide for several years. She now runs the website Living with CFS & Fibromyalgia.
"I will write myself into well-being." - Nancy Mair
Recent research shows that the simple act of writing down thoughts and feelings can help people with chronic illness improve their health. The April 14, 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about stressful experiences in their lives actually experienced reduced symptoms. Researchers asked 83 patients with either asthma or arthritis to write about the most stressful experience in their lives for 20 minutes on three consecutive days. A control group of 43 patients wrote about a neutral topic. All the study participants continued with their regular medical treatment. The groups were evaluated at two weeks, two months, and four months.
According to the study, 47% of the patients who wrote about their feelings showed significant clinical improvement, while only 24% of the comparison group improved. Most notably, the arthritis patients who wrote about a stressful event had an average of 28% improvement in their symptoms, while the comparison group showed no change.
Researchers are still unclear why this writing exercise produces positive physical results, but this study-the first of its kind-adds important data to the growing body of literature documenting positive health effects in healthy individuals. Previous studies of healthy subjects who perform similar writing exercises showed positive changes in various health measures, including blood pressure, immune function, and a greater sense of well-being.
It remains to be seen how long the positive impact will last for the study participants and if those with other chronic conditions can achieve the same results. But it is certainly impressive that a task that took a total of only sixty minutes produced such dramatic results.
So what does this new evidence mean to you? The stress and isolation experienced by sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia can be extreme and is exacerbated by the fact that these illnesses are so poorly understood that we may often find ourselves having to explain and justify our limitations. Writing about our feelings can help relieve some of this burden and allow us to cope more effectively with our circumstances. Henriette Klauser, author of Put Your Heart On Paper, explains that getting your thoughts down on paper often frees you from being consumed by them. She quotes the ancient proverb, "Every crisis has a gift for you in its hands," and she suggests that writing about a crisis in your own life may help you to unwrap the gift beneath.
What's more, writing can nurture the spirit and enhance the quality of our daily lives in spite of illness and disability. By nurturing our creativity, we can feel and appreciate our aliveness, regardless of the limitations of our bodies. Throughout her book, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, author Sarah Ban Breathnach advocates writing as a means of exploration and discovery. In addition to her suggestion of keeping a "gratitude journal" to record five things each day that you are grateful for, she explains the importance of using writing as a tool to clear the mind and calm a restless spirit. She calls this ritual the "daily dialogue" because, she says, "you are really conversing with someone much wiser and saner as you write: your authentic self." While we can learn a great deal from others, often the most essential wisdom comes from within. When you put pen to paper with an open mind and heart, you may find you have shared what you didn't even know you had to say.
So you're not a professional writer? No matter. In fact, perfectionistic goals tend to be an obstacle to the free expression that could be most helpful to you. Don't worry about correct spelling or grammar, and it isn't necessary to analyze what you've written. Trust your own intuition. Follow your stream of consciousness. It doesn't even matter what form of writing you choose-be it a poem, a journal, a letter, or a random list of thoughts on a piece of scrap paper. You may find that sharing what you write with others can be a means to resolving problems and deepening relationships. But it is the act of expressing yourself that is the most nurturing and healing, whether or not another person ever reads your words.
Here are a few ideas of how you might get started writing, inspired by Susan Dion's booklet Write Now: Maintaining a Creative Spirit While Homebound and Ill:
- Make a list of 25 things that make you laugh or smile.
- Identify 30 warm-fuzzy thoughts, a list which you can take out on difficult days for affirmation.
- Write about something you're afraid of and why.
- List the 10 worst things about living with your illness.
- Keep a record itemizing books read, movies watched, or music enjoyed.
- Start a journal to explore powerful emotions. Were you extremely angry, joyful, or sad today? Why? Use it to come to terms with the roots of your feelings and their impact on your life.
- Write a letter to a loved one, letting them know how much you cherish them.
- Write a love letter to yourself, to be opened at a later date.
The possibilities for what you write are endless. You'll find many more ideas and resources with the links below. All you need are a pen and paper (or perhaps your computer keyboard instead) to begin to discover your own hidden healing resources.