In 1998, when I launched Writing Is Good Medicine® at the cancer center in Bennington, VT, it was based upon social psychologist James Pennebaker’s research on the health benefits of expressive writing. His studies found that patients with chronic conditions who wrote about their illness experiences showed improvements in depression, anxiety, fatigue and tension, which resulted in increased vigor, better sleep and less daytime dysfunction.
I was hoping the patients in my writing program would reap the benefits similar to those in Pennebaker’s studies. Although I wasn’t prepared to design a research project to evaluate the program, I did ask the participants if they would share their writing with one another. This led to candid discussions about their lived experiences of illness. What they read out loud was not only cathartic but also identified issues and concerns about their diagnosis, treatment plan and prognosis. Many talked about the emotional turmoil of living with uncertainty.
I found myself encouraging the patients to communicate what they expressed in the writing exercises to the cancer care team. For me, what I heard planted a seed for what would become the medical humanist model at the cancer center.
“People are narrative based…With chaos and disruption, they begin to tell the doctor’s version of their story, the medical version, not their own. They need to find meaning, make sense out of their disease” said the Reverend Steven Spidell, a chaplain at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who facilitates a class, Healing Stories.
Rev. Spidell’s observation captures an underlying barrier to doctor-patient communication, a difference of languages and perspectives. What I learned is that Writing Is Good Medicine® can help patients validate what they are thinking and feeling about their illness.
So, can writing improve health? Pennebaker’s studies answer that question. I would say that prescribing the pen could also be a good way for patients to identify their concerns and prepare for opening conversations with healthcare providers about what’s on their minds.