Imagine a blank sheet of paper, a pen and thoughts crowding the mind. The blank sheet becomes a space, a place, a moment; the pen turns into a voice and thoughts come out in the form of words and phrases. Thus begins an intimate dialogue, a perfect moment made of silences and noises, those of the emotions that are now there: black on white. That emotional din that deafened the rest melts on the blank page and the volume in the mind diminishes. Fernando Pessoa described this process thus: “if I write what I feel it is because by doing so, I lower the fever of hearing”.
Therapeutic efficacy of writing
The most important research on autobiographical writing, later defined as expressive, is attributed to William James Pennebaker, a Texan sociologist who began to observe this phenomenon almost by accident. His first study involved two groups of students narrating their most important trauma with pen and paper for at least fifteen minutes a day and for at least three consecutive days.
The first group should have done so by describing only the events that occurred, the second should have combined the description of the facts with that of the emotions associated with them. A third group - the control group - had the task of describing, in the same way, a neutral subject such as their shoes or their room. Each participant was asked to write straight away, as if the pen would never detach from the paper, and to suspend any form of judgment on the chosen style, spelling or vocabulary for the entire time of the session.
The results of this first observation were promising, as the number of medical visits requested by students in the second group of writers - the number monitored in the months before and after the narrative sessions - had experienced a statistically significant decline. The researchers hypothesized that in the subjects who had narrated, in addition to the facts, the emotions associated with the trauma, the disturbances of a psychosomatic nature were somewhat reduced.
Thus began a long line of research that highlighted, among many, these effects of autobiographical writing: prevention of psychosomatic disorders, reduction of intrusive and avoidant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, increase in immune defenses, improvement of mood in the long period. Furthermore, writing allows us to re-attribute meanings to important life events and to relocate painful moments and emotions in the past.
Uses and functions of writing in strategic brief therapy. Write to channel
When you feel a strong anger or a deep pain the narration allows you to create the bank that brings the right course to the flow of emotions. This is the case of betrayals, separations, relational, professional and family disappointments. Even the elaboration of a bereavement, in due time - in order not to hinder the natural course of a legitimate and necessary emotional evolution - can be helped by the use of some writing techniques.
Write to manage anxiety
Some forms of anxiety can be managed with writing: in particular, the strategic brief therapy uses what is called a "logbook" in the treatment of panic attacks. The person is asked to fill in a special form right at the moment of the attack; in this way the action of writing frees the subject from the dysfunctional control of his psychophysiological state and allows the anxious symptoms to return to acceptable parameters. This happens thanks to those few minutes of concentration spent on carrying out a specific task.
Write to overcome the trauma
In the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, the use of writing is suggested by elevating the person to the "director" of a film that for a long time he has not been able to watch. In the role of the narrator, he will be able to personally select the scenes and facts to tell, remembering - every evening - to add details to his own story.
This technique produces some important effects such as that of externalizing, that is, bringing out what has been trapped in the person's feeling. Thanks to the integration between sensory and emotional memories, the narration of the trauma reconnects certain areas of the brain and repeating this exercise every evening helps an adaptation to the traumatic contents which weakens the emotional load. Finally, concluding the film in all its details allows you to relocate the trauma in the past as in a real rite of passage.
The person thus overcomes the moment in which, in an attempt not to relive the trauma, she was immersed and stuck in a moving sand made of flashbacks, nightmares and pathological avoidances.
Writing to subvert dysfunctional mental mechanisms
Many of the indications that in brief strategic therapy are oriented to the unblocking of some dysfunctional mechanisms, are prescribed in written form. Writing is a concrete action and what is tangible is often more incisive and meaningful, also with a view to learning that leads to therapeutic change.
To conclude, it is good to remember how much the action of writing requires a constitutive creativity that activates our neural connections and such intimate and profound processes whose beneficial effects should not arouse surprise.
As Max Frisch argued: "To write is to read within oneself"
Dr. Cristina Di Loreto (Psychotherapist and Official Researcher of the Strategic Therapy Center)
Cagnoni F., Milanese R. (2009) Changing the past. Overcoming traumatic experiences with strategic therapy. Ponte alle Grazie, Milan.
Pennebaker JW, Kiecolt-Glaser J. E Glaser R. (1988), Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy, “Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology”, 56, 239-245.
Pennebaker, JW, & Susman, JR (1988). Disclosure of traumas and psychosomatic processes. Social Science & Medicine, 26, 327-332.
Petrie K., Booth R., Pennebaker JW, Davison KP and Thomas MG (1995), Disclosure of trauma and immune response to a hepatitis B vaccination program, “Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology”, 63, 787–792.