Catherine McCall MS, LMFT

Overcoming Child Abuse

How and Why Writing Heals Wounds of Child Abuse

Research confirms that writing also promotes physical health

Posted Sep 28, 2012

There is a profound connection between writing and healing. Dr.James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, after considerable research, explained in his book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, that excessive holding back of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can place people at risk for both major and minor diseases. More than simply a catharsis or venting, translating events into language can affect brain and immune functions. The subjects he tested had an increase in germ-fighting lymphocytes in their blood and lower stress levels. Writing was found to reduce anxiety and depression, improve grades in college, and aid people in finding jobs. He also reported that months after people had written about traumas over 70% reported that writing helped them to understand both the event and themselves better.

Writing provides a means to externalize traumatic experience and therefore render it less overwhelming. At the same time, as the upsetting experience is repeatedly confronted,  the emotional reactivity one feels as s/he assesses its meaning and impact is weakened. Once organized, traumatic events become smaller and smaller and therefore easier to deal with. Having distilled complex experiences into more understandable packages, survivors can begin to move beyond trauma because the process of writing about it provides a means for the experience to become psychologically complete, therefore there's no more reason to ruminate about it. But not just any kind of writing will do. Dr.Pennebaker explains that the more writing succeeds as narrative – by being detailed, organized, compelling, vivid, and lucid – the more health and emotional benefits are derived. Likewise, over time, the work of inhibiting traumatic narratives and feelings acts as an ongoing stressor and gradually undermines the body’s defenses.

Writing that both describes traumatic events in detail and also examines how we felt about these events at the time and feel about them now (describing both negative and positive emotions), is the only kind of writing about trauma that clinically has been associated with improved health . And this is accomplished in Pennebaker’s experiments by only one hour of writing – fifteen minutes a day – over a four-day period. Later studies showed that the more days people wrote the more beneficial were the effects of writing.

Dr. Pennebaker’s work is compelling. I knew nothing about it during the years when I was working on When the Piano Stops, my own memoir of recovering from incest (and Never Tell: The True Story of Overcoming a Terrifying Childhood, which was the title given its best-selling, UK print). From time to time during those years, my beloved uncle, who had a very limited understanding about what’s involved in healing from childhood sexual abuse, expressed concern about my continually revisiting the most horrifying experiences of my life. The information in this blog would have been great to share with him at that time, but of course I couldn’t. Today, however, I have the opportunity to share it with you, and I do so with the hope that if you’re a survivor of child abuse you’ll take it to heart, gather your internal resources, your memory, your pain, and your creativity, and write on!


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 Tomorrow’s blog will be a continuation of the writing and healing theme: Authors’ Perspectives on the Healing Power of Writing