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A Word of Caution about Writing and Healing

Posted on Nov 2, 2006 by

Some of the writing ideas I’ve put up on this site have to do with writing about difficult or painful experiences. Though research has shown that this kind of writing can, over the long haul, be healing, research has also shown that, in the immediate aftermath, writing of this sort can sometimes feel painful.

On his website, James Pennebaker, a preeminent researcher in the field of writing and health, offers this advice, which applies in particular to writing that deals with upsetting experiences:

Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.

I think this is sound advice. Some people may wonder: how upset is too upset? For me, an analogy to yoga is sometimes helpful here. I once had a yoga teacher tell us that when working on a new pose it’s prudent to stretch just a bit beyond where one has been before—stretching into that “good” and bearable kind of soreness—and holding that stretch for ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds—but not stretching into frank pain. Stretching that is too painful can cause a kind of rebound effect: it hurts so much the next day that you may never want to go back to the class or ever think about yoga again. Writing can be like that. Writing that becomes too painful can make us want to shy away from the process.

So, just a bit of a stretch—a bearable stretch.

I also think it’s helpful to remember lifelines—those things that reconnect us to a sense of safety and comfort and belonging. And then we can call on those lifelines when we need them—when we, for instance, stretch ourselves a little farther than we intended to stretch. A healing place can be a lifeline. A healing resource can be a lifeline. Healing language. A friend. A counselor. A doctor. A teacher. A nurse. . . .

Perhaps one of the most important things to know when writing about difficult experiences is to simply recognize when one is becoming overwhelmed–oh, I’ve gone farther with this than I intended–and then to pull back–to take a break–to go outside and look up at the sky.