The Healing Power of Words

Research reveals how the power of reading and writing can transform our lives.

Posted Nov 18, 2019

Free Minds gift from Kelli Taylor
Source: Free Minds gift from Kelli Taylor

They meet in a small classroom in the Washington, D.C. jail—teenagers convicted of crimes, locked away from family and friends. For an hour and a half each week, these young men find a space of freedom in the Free Minds Book Club, as they discuss books and write about their lives.

The first Free Minds Book Club met in 2002. Since then, members have shared their poems and essays with their families and friends. Book Club members returning home from prison have become “Poet Ambassadors,” sharing their poems and stories with young people in their community, who respond with their own stories of gangs, domestic violence, and heartbreak, realizing that they are not alone. Written from the heart, the Poet Ambassadors' words express their struggles and hopes. Their writing has touched the hearts of at-risk youth in their community, helping prevent violence and heal troubled lives.

Last spring I met Book Club facilitator Kelli Taylor, who gave me a copy of their 2015 book of poems and essays, The Untold Story of the Real Me, illustrated with compelling photographs of the young writers. The book’s dedication reads: “We believe in the power of reading and writing to teach, build community, inspire individuals and change lives” (2015, p. ii).

Research has shown how the power of words can change our lives by labeling, writing, and reading.

  • Labeling. Neuroscience research has shown the powerful effect words have on our brains. For example, consciously recognizing and labeling our emotions (“sad,” “anxious,” “confused”), reduces amygdala activation (Lieberman, Eisenberger, Crockett, Pfeiffer, & Way, 2007: Vago & Silbersweig, 2012). By simply giving words to our emotions we move away from limbic reactivity (“the low road”) and activate those parts of the brain that deal with language and meaning: Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in the left frontal and temporal lobes, becoming more mindful and self-aware.
  • Writing. Psychologist James Pennebaker has found that using words in self-disclosure can help traumatized people express their feelings, discover a deeper sense of meaning, and gain greater perspective on their lives (Pennebaker, 1990; 1997).  His research has shown that writing about painful events can be as beneficial as therapy. It relieves the stress of unspoken pain and organizes our experience into a meaningful narrative, bringing greater perspective and understanding.

In one experiment, Pennebaker asked college students to write about a painful experience for fifteen minutes a day for four days. After writing about everything from dysfunctional families to domestic violence, drug addiction, rape, and attempted suicide, the students felt better, found the writing deeply meaningful, and experienced significant improvements in their health. Other studies have associated writing with lower blood pressure, lower pain and medication usse, reductions in depression, and increased immune function, bringing positive health effects to a variety of populations from medical students to the unemployed, crime victims, prisoners, and those suffering from chronic pain (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988; Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999). 

  • Reading. Not only writing but reading has a powerful effect on us. Research has shown that reading poetry and stories about people's lives can be therapeutic. UCLA neuroscientist Daniel Siegel has described how poetry can make us more mindful, enabling us to see ourselves and our world "in a new light" (Siegel, 2007, p. 161). Studies have also shown that reading stories can bring us greater empathy (Diikic, & Oatley, 2014).

Thus, by embracing the power of the written word, the young writers in the Free Minds Book Club have transformed their pain and resentment, discovering greater meaning, cultivating community, and reaching out to make a positive difference in their world.

How can you use the healing power of words in your life?

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This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

References

Djikic, M., & Oatley, K. (2014). The art in fiction: From indirect communication to changes of the self. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8, 498-505.

Free Minds Book Club. (2015). The untold story of the real me: Young voices from prison. Washington, D.C.:  Shout Mouse Press.

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-428.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1990). Opening up: The healing power of confiding in others. New York, NY: William Morrow; Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8 (3), 162-166.

Pennebaker, J.W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239-245.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J.D. (1999). Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of Cinical Psychology, 55, 1243-1254.

Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 

Vago, D. R. & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): A framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. doi: 10.3389/fnhuum.2012.00296.