The untold story inside you

The Bottom Line

  • Chronic conditions have a significant burden on those who suffer from them, their caregivers and the entire health and social system.
  • Alternative strategies, other than medical treatments, are increasingly being used in clinical practice to reduce anxiety and improve mood.
  • There are several ways that writing can impact physical health, for example as catharsis, to express ourselves or through cognitive restructuring linking memory, emotions, chronic stress and physical health.
  • Guided therapeutic writing can improve physical and mental health.
Do you suffer from depression, social isolation or chronic conditions? Wondering how to get through the winter, confined in your home because of COVID-19? Could writing help you get out of the winter gloom, or even improve your physical and mental health?

Let's take a look at the evidence on the effects of therapeutic writing on people with chronic conditions.

What research tells us

A systematic review of 64 studies examined the effectiveness and benefits of therapeutic writing in people with chronic conditions.(1) Two types of therapeutic writing were analyzed: 1) therapeutic writing guided by a facilitator and 2) expressive writing that was not guided.

1- Guided therapeutic writing
In this type of intervention, a person acts as a facilitator and accompanies the writers before or during their writing, either face to face or via the Internet, advises them, gives them feedback on their writing. This type of intervention is mainly used in healthcare facilities, in rehabilitation programs or in groups of people with chronic conditions. The topics of writing can be varied, according to individual inspiration, and the writing exercises allow patients to get to know each other better or to promote the process of self-healing. When writing is done as part of a group activity, being part of the group and feeling supported seem to be a big part of the intervention.

2- Expressive writing that is not guided
In writing interventions that are not guided by a facilitator, writing instructions are given in writing, by telephone or by video. Participants are encouraged to write at home on their own. There is no advice or feedback on the written material. Usually, only one writing topic can be chosen, usually focusing on a disease or treatment, in which participants are invited to reveal their deepest thoughts and feelings, in an expressive way.

Review findings suggest that guided therapeutic writing is a complex intervention and that group interaction contributes to the perceived benefits. However, there is currently little evidence on the effectiveness of non-directed expressive writing interventions.

Either way, whether the activity is done individually or in a group, people need motivation to initiate and continue the writing activity. You need to find an initial incentive to try the experiment, and then you have to feel the benefits so that you don't give up. Of note, it seems that the majority of participants perceive psychological benefits in releasing their emotions. Putting traumatic events into words and structuring their emotions into a story helps release deep feelings and helps the healing process.

Writing can help people take a step back from an event, think differently about the situation. This can lead to behavioural changes and the desire to change some aspect of someone's life.

To your pencils and keyboards!

Whether it's writing your memoirs, writing poetry, keeping a journal, sharing the isolation you feel because of the COVID-19 pandemic or recounting joyful events, writing will allow you to release your emotions and be entertained.

Seek writing programs available in virtual groups to experience the benefits of writing as part of a group. Experienced authors (some being internationally renowned) offer online "master classes" to share writing tips. This is the case of Quebec author Janette Bertrand who launched an online writing workshop (in partnership with the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal) to encourage older adults to write their life stories.

Why not start your own writing group with some family members or friends? Share your writing with them and meet up online every week to discuss it.

Challenge yourself to write a little bit every day, on a topic that matters to you.

As Maya Angelou, the acclaimed American poet, said: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." It may be time to share your life stories.


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Author Details


  1. Nyssen OP, Taylor SJC, Wong G, Steed E, Bourke L, Lord J, et al. Does therapeutic writing help people with long-term conditions? Systematic review, realist synthesis and economic considerations. Health Technology Assessment. 2016; 20(27).

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