Research shows that writing not only improves one’s emotional health, but it has physiologically benefits. Since the 1980s, numerous studies conducted by psychologist James W. Pennebaker, PhD, have proven the that writing about stressful emotions has significant positive effects on individuals coping with diseases, disorders, and trauma. Pennebaker demonstrates the evidence he and fellow psychologists have gathered in his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, which includes therapeutic writing exercises to try. Another book by Pennebaker called Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval offers readers an even deeper personal exploration of how writing about emotional challenges enables healing.
But not just any story heals. It’s important to respect the power that words possess. They can do good, but they also can do harm.
For example, there are innumerable ways to tell the story of an eating disorder. You can cast yourself in countless roles. The narrative could be one based in dysfunctional family dynamics, or a critique of cultural ideals and pressures. You could construe yourself as someone with a broken brain, or blame yourself for creating the disorder. Or you could depict it is a repercussion of trauma, for which you are not at fault. Clearly, some of these stories would exacerbate the distress you feel in the lived experience of that story, while other ways of telling the same circumstances would feel uplifting and empowering.
“Writing Your Way to Recovery” is an ongoing series of blog posts from Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists that offers glimpses into what ways narrative practice can support eating disorder recovery. Each post will include some research on the power of story in healing, and offer experiential exercises–a narrative piece to read, questions to reflect upon, and a prompt to write to–that apply to eating disorder recovery. If you are interested in exploring how narrative practice can be used more centrally in your recovery, contact EDRS.
Some of the most profound writing derives from an author’s deep distress. Henri Nouwen, a renowned spiritual writer and teacher, spent seven months in a state of severe despair towards the end of his life. During that time, he kept a secret journal. His friend encouraged him to publish the it, in order to offer guidance and comfort to others suffering.
The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom is a slim volume of passages that achieve what great writing has the potential to offer: they hold up a mirror to what readers need to examine in themselves.
Although Nouwen did not struggle with an eating disorder, the fears, anxieties, and pain he wrote about speaks directly to what many who do have an eating disorder experience in their pursuit of recovery.
Read the following passage twice through, out loud if possible.
Reading: “Trust the Inner Voice”
Do you really want to be converted? Are you willing to be transformed? Or do you keep clutching your old ways of life with one hand while with the other you beg people to help you change?
Conversion is certainly not something you can bring about yourself. It is not a question of willpower. You have to trust the inner voice that shows the way. You know that inner voice. You turn to it often. But after you have heard with clarity what you are asked to do, you start raising questions, fabricating objections, and seeking everyone else’s opinion. Thus you become entangled in countless often contradictory thoughts, feelings, and ideas…
Only by attending constantly to the inner voice can you be converted to a new life of freedom and joy.
Meditate on, journal about, or discuss with a friend, family member, or therapist the following questions:
- What kind of transformation do I long for?
- What “old ways of life” am I willing to let go of?
- What makes it hard to “trust the inner voice”?
- Get a piece of paper and a pen (write by hand, not on a screen).
- Set a timer for 5 minutes (you can write more later–but start by seeing what comes out in just 5 minutes).
- Take three long, slow, deep breaths.
- Start the timer as you read and respond to this prompt:
“Write what your inner voice–the part of you that wants a life of freedom and joy–is saying right now.”
Be kind and gentle with yourself about whatever comes out–or doesn’t come! Writer’s block is normal, especially when beginning a writing practice. Give yourself another chance. Consider sharing your response in your next therapy appointment, with a trusted loved one, or just keep it for yourself.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists can help. Call 1-866-525-2766 or fill out our contact form and someone will be in touch with you soon.