Writing to help you overcome your problems.
There are countless examples of authors who have used writing as a means of coming to terms with major psychological traumas in their lives. There are many well-known examples. Joyce Carol Oakes wrote of the loss of her husband in ‘A Widows Story’. John Nicol, the navigator of the RAF aircraft shot down during the Gulf War, relived the horrors of his captivity in ‘Tornado Down’. We can find some examples even among the contributors to the Voice of Literature e-zine. Amanda Whitbeck writes about abuse and Keith Guernsey writes about his recovery from serious illness in ‘Fathers and Sons- Sports and Life’. But although writers claim to have benefited from these activities, is there any real scientific evidence that writing about your problems helps you overcome them?
There is some. Gillie Bolton’s book ‘The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing’, a how-to book on writing for therapy, has received the support of medical practitioners. There are a number of counsellers in creative writing for therapeutic purposes and it is practised in many countries, including the USA, UK and France. The Metanoia Institute, in Bristol UK, offers M.Sc, courses in it, validated by Middlesex University. It seems, however, to be thought of more as an alternative treatment rather than part of the mainstream of psychological counselling.
Can readers benefit as well as writers?
Not everyone is motivated to write about the major crises in their lives, but is there any benefit to be gained by reading about the experiences of others? While ‘Bibliotherapy’ developed out of the introduction of hospital libraries after World War I, the use of reading as a help for people with troubles goes back to the middle ages. In modern times reading is used in various ways in the treatment of psychological disorders, and scientifically controlled trials have demonstrated its efficacy for various disorders such as bulimia, alcohol addiction, sexual dysfunction and insomnia.
What kind of books?
There are three kinds of book which are in common use for therapeutic purposes. There are memoirs or journals, where writers write about their personal situation. This allows the writer to come to terms directly with their fears and feelings, while readers who have had or are having similar experiences can get some relief when they see others in the same position. Then there are self-help books, which offer specific advice on how to deal with what is causing the difficulties. These are of use in cognitive treatments, where the sufferer is encouraged to face up directly to their problems and work out solutions logically.
On the other hand, fiction books, prose or poetry, work in a different way. They use an ‘Affective’ approach where the fact that the victims of the trauma are not real people allows the sufferer to approach their difficulties less directly, thus reducing the emotional involvement and allowing them to discover a path to recovery more easily.
How does it work?
Serious psychological problems ought to be dealt with using professional counsellors, who may employ the techniques of therapeutic writing and reading as part of a programme of treatment. But if you are just finding life a bit difficult at the moment, can you turn to reading and writing to help you get over it? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to say it can help. It perhaps works as a kind of self-psychoanalysis, helping you bring the causes of your unhappiness and unease to the fore, accepting them and allowing you to move on.
Is it worth a try?
I think it is pretty well a truism in psychological healing that if you think it is working, it is. My advice, as a complete non-professional, is that if you find reading or writing makes you feel better about your problems, keep doing it.
Contributed by James Gault
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