I was not surprised to learn about a recent study at a VA Hospital that showed veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) benefitted from a writing program. Needless to say, there are many who served in the military who experienced psychological traumas that have lingered for years after their combat experiences. It turns out “Written Exposure Therapy” developed by Denise Sloan, PhD and Brian Marx, PhD helps reduce distress in veterans in a relatively short period of time.
I’m by no means equating the traumas inflicted by war with a cancer diagnosis but reading this study made me think about the Writing is Good Medicine program I created in 1998 at the cancer center in Bennington, VT. What I observed was that cancer patients manifested similar PTSD symptoms, including anxiety, fears, depression and confusion. While veterans were asked to write about their trauma experiences, I offered exercises that helped patients explore issues surrounding the impact of cancer on themselves and loved ones, effects of treatment and living with uncertainty.
I also took an additional step of encouraging patients to share their writing with the cancer care team, which often led to conversations about health status, preferences for care and supportive care needs. Although we didn’t implement a study, testimonials demonstrated that the program was helpful in improving satisfaction with care. That is, doctors and nurses used the writing exercise content to address what patients identified as concerns.
There’s mounting evidence that writing organizes thoughts and gives meaning to traumatic experiences, which can improve immune system function and increase physical healing. This therapeutic technique also helps to process and regulate stress.
I would encourage veterans facing PTSD to contact their Veteran’s Affairs office and ask about “Written Exposure Therapy.” Those facing cancer or other serious illnesses interested in the Writing is Good Medicine program can contact me through the SpeakSooner.org website.