How writing about your health problems can help your recovery

Woman sitting outside writing

After experiencing a heart event, it can be hard to open up to the people around you. Two experts tell Sarah Brealey about the benefits of writing and how to get started.

Fiona Hamilton, a writer and facilitator who runs writing for wellbeing courses and mentoring sessions in the NHS and community settings, says writing can be a useful way to describe your experiences.

“As humans, we tell stories about our lives,” she explains. “Writing is an opportunity to find ways of narrating the experience, to ourselves and others.

“When your life has been changed by an illness, when you can’t do things you used to, or maybe you’ve gained an understanding of what matters in life, writing can help. Illness and challenge often involve feelings of changed identity, and writing can be used to understand, in a safe space: ‘How am I going to tell my story?’”

Illness and challenge often involve feelings of changed identity

Fiona Hamilton

Writing can be especially helpful if it doesn’t feel easy to talk to friends and family. “Talking to loved ones may not be straightforward; you may feel you don’t want to burden them,” she says. “Alternatively, people may not fully understand your situation or might want to hear that everything is better now.”

Claire Williamson is the Programme Leader for MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute, and works as a creative writing facilitator. She says writing about your health experiences can bring multiple benefits. “People often understand their experiences better as a result of writing about them.

"It’s a way of becoming an expert on your experience,” she says. “It doesn’t remove the pain, but you can get a sense of making something whole out of something quite messy.”

Poet at work sign 

Even if writing upsets you at the time, as you relive a negative experience, it can help you feel better afterwards. There’s evidence of the benefit that writing about your emotions and experiences can have on your physical health.

Small studies of heart attack patients have found that those who wrote about their feelings on having a heart attack had a higher health-related quality of life than those who wrote about neutral topics.

Ms Williamson says writing can also be a calming process. “People usually become calmer when they write, or read out their writing. This can help you feel less anxious, which is especially useful if you have symptoms of anxiety, such as panic attacks.”

Getting started with writing

Any form of writing can have benefits. “Sometimes poetry is useful because you can get a lot of emotion in a small space. Others may feel they need to get the whole thing out, so a longer form is better,” explains Ms Williamson.

If you belong to a writing group, having other people hear what you’ve been through can also help, as your feelings are heard and accepted.

There are no rules about how you write, although Ms Williamson encourages specificity and figures of speech. “Don’t just say you feel sad, anxious or isolated, but ‘like a puppy left out in the rain’. It gives you a frame of reference – rather than just feeling sad, you are thinking about the puppy and relating to that.”

Tips for writing about your experiences

Pen resting on a notebook

  • Try to write regularly, for a short, defined chunk of time, rather than setting aside a large chunk of time, which can feel intimidating. Even 10 minutes can be enough.
  • If you’re having trouble writing about your experiences, try writing about them as if they’ve happened to someone else – make up a character, or just use “he” or “she”.
  • Using words like “because” or “as a result” in your writing can help you toward finding meaning in what you’ve been through.
  • If in need of inspiration, reading other people’s poems or creative writing can help.
  • A writing group or, better, a writing for wellbeing group can give you extra guidance, and help you to set aside time for writing. The Bristol-based Orchard Foundation organises courses like this.
  • If you want further reading to get you started, try ‘The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing’ by Gillie Bolton.
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