I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in my late thirties and lost not only my mobility but also the normal energy levels I needed to maintain a successful career. I had to close down my business and stay at home until I finally found an effective therapy which turned my life around.
This “treatment” involved writing about the trauma of my childhood and off-loading the accumulated stresses of life onto a blank page every morning. It was simple and yet deceptively powerful; I started to feel the benefit almost immediately as symptoms reduced and energy levels soared.
Since then I’ve discovered that writing therapy (also known as expressive writing or journaling) has the backing of many doctors and psychologists. Its healing effects have been measured scientifically, recorded numerically, and analyzed statistically in 300 different studies over the past 30 years.
In my case, symptoms declined dramatically and I was able to launch a new, successful on-line business. I followed this up by becoming a recording artist, the fulfillment of a long-lost dream.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
To experience physical and emotional healing I had to face the past, particularly some of the unhappy events in my childhood. I discovered through my journal that early experiences had impacted my health.
Psychologists have known for many years that trauma in childhood often leaves mental scars. However, it appears that the damage is not only psychological, but also physical.
In-depth research into Adverse Childhood Experiences is currently being carried out as a collaborative study between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA, and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, CA.
One of the latest theories is that emotional trauma in childhood can change the structure of the developing brain, affecting the genes that control stress hormone output. These hormonal changes create an over-active inflammatory stress response in the body and a vulnerability to chronic illness in later life. So a child who suffers bad emotional experiences is prone to suffer mentally or physically as an adult.
This explanation is proposed by science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa in her book Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal. Nakazawa explores the lifelong consequences––both emotional and physical––of ACEs.
She looks at the long-term effects of early stressors, such as being abused or neglected; losing a parent; living in a dysfunctional or very poor family; witnessing parents going through a divorce or living with a severely depressed parent. She argues that ACEs shape our biology and seriously affect our physical and emotional resilience as adults.
Early traumas can predispose us toward chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, auto-immune disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and depression, says Nakazawa.
She believes that expressive writing, along with disciplines like meditation, yoga and dietary improvements can re-boot the brain and mitigate the destructive effects of ACEs.
A highway to the unconscious
My experience supports Nakazawa’s argument. I am convinced that writing about my childhood trauma helped bring my MS symptoms under control because for many years I’d been deteriorating, and it was only when I started journaling that my symptoms improved.
As I began writing, I realized I had found a highway into my unconscious mind and was unlocking memories of events that had deeply affected me. I vividly recalled how the nuns who had taught me at school yelled at me for being two minutes late to pick up my younger brothers, and I remembered how shy and afraid the incident had made me feel for a long time.
Connecting with my feelings like this freaked me out, to begin with. It was a shock to realize that the frightened, shamed child of my past was still living in my body and that the powerful negative emotions I had repressed as a child still existed within me. However, I soon discovered that writing about these long-buried feelings was cathartic.
Initially, I found it hard to write about my childhood and adolescence, but after I’d pushed through the pain barrier, my health improved enormously. This fits in with scientific findings.
Short-term pain, long-term gain
James Pennebaker, the pioneer of expressive writing research, states in his book Expressive Writing: Words That Heal: “Writing may make you sad for a brief time, but the long-term effects are far more positive. Across multiple studies, people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than they felt before writing.… Reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals…and studies show improvement in overall well-being and improved cognitive function.”
Currently, I am involved in helping other people to heal their lives through journaling. I advise my clients to confront their traumatic memories and write their way through painful feelings. I give them specific tools to help in the process. Many of my clients have found healing this way. Today they are able to look back over their lives and declare: that was me thirty years ago. But that’s not me now.
When we have fully explored our issues through journaling we can say: OK, that’s the past, that’s what happened, but it was not my fault that my parents divorced (for example). We become aware of situations that trigger our old issues and learn how to deal with them.
Writing therapy generally, takes a few minutes each day. Sometimes we have to commit extra time to writing about particularly difficult issues. But the end result, emotional freedom, self-knowledge and better health, is worth the effort it takes.
A journal is the best therapist you can have: it never judges your behavior and it doesn’t charge you a cent. You don’t need to abandon other effective treatments to use writing therapy. It can be used as a complementary therapy. But if you have a chronic health problem it’s definitely worth giving writing therapy a trial. You have nothing to lose but your symptoms!