The power of writing as therapy (and books to get you started)

Writing therapy

The other day I was overwhelmed with our big Californian move to San Francisco from London. There was a lot to do, decisions to make, things to check, endless research, people to call, find a place to live, look for a daycare for our daughter Arianna and so forth. It was madness.

In addition I had been feeling a huge sense of guilt of leaving my family and friends behind. I felt that I was abandoning them and that I would miss them dearly. I have always been very guilty of feeling guilty and this was one of those moments where the guilt would simply not leave me alone. In particular, I felt that I was leaving my parents and taking their only granddaughter away from them. There was certainly a sadness in their eyes when I initially told them the news but I was hoping that it may take some time to digest the news and that eventually they would see the incredible opportunity that my husband had and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something that he had always wanted to do and was very passionate about. Also living in another fascinating melting-pot-of-a-city where some of the world’s smartest people reside hopefully would add so much to our lives and to us as people, which may only become clear in hindsight. It was definitely not a permanent move, but certainly a move for a few years with us moving back to London eventually.

Strangely, I had a sudden urge to simply write, to make sense of my thoughts on paper and to release all the mixed feelings I was experiencing at the time. The impact that this simple exercise had was profound. Therapeutic, I felt that I had truly expressed how I was feeling and whilst my task list remained the same, I felt a sense of calm in the chaos.

The writing relieved my guilty feelings and allowed me, for once, to focus on what was important to me and listen to my own needs and wants. This was something I had to do for myself and for my young family. If I didn’t do it, I know I would regret it. Plus, my family would definitely come and visit. San Francisco is only a flight away.

The writing allowed me to be true to myself and I can now see why for centuries people have used writing as a therapeutic method to heal themselves. In fact a psychology professor, James Pennebaker, conducted an experiment in 1986 where he asked the students he was teaching to spend 15 minutes writing about their most significant trauma or difficulty that they had faced in their lives. He encouraged them to be totally honest about how they felt, putting down any and every emotion or thought that came to mind, even if these had never been shared before. He asked the students to repeat the exercise daily for four days. For some it was an extremely emotional experience and whilst difficult to write, they always wanted to carry on. He compared the results to a control group who were asked to write about a random event or object. The purpose of his research was to determine whether there was link between the expressive writing and reduction in the number of doctor’s visits by the students. He monitored doctor’s visits for both groups. What he noticed was that the group that expressed their feelings about a difficult event through writing visited the doctor significantly less compared to the control group. The results were astonishing and have inspired decades of research studies in the field of psychoneuroimmunology — the impact of expressive writing on the immune system. Recent studies on breast cancer patients have confirmed that those who perform some expressive writing during their chemotherapy experience fewer symptoms and attend fewer appointments. Whilst expressive writing does not fully heal, it certainly appears to have a beneficial impact on the healing process. Modern day theories now suggest that writing helps to better regulate our emotions, which in turn has a beneficial impact on our immune systems.

Similar to meditation and mindfulness, expressive writing too has a place in modern life and we should all take time out in our day to write or journal, particularly when the daily stresses of life begin to take their toll.

A simple journaling exercise to follow is to simply set 5 to 10 minutes aside every day at the same time and simply write as though you are detailing the current ‘stream of consciousness in your head. Do not hold back and refrain from censoring your thoughts and emotions. These can be a real eye opener in terms of how you are feeling and can be a great way to relieve painful feelings and thoughts and even stress. Sometimes it might be difficult to write in ‘I’ form but writing in third person can actually help you see things from a different perspective and make the writing process easier.

Here are some great books on getting started with writing therapy and journal therapy:

Writing Therapy by Tim Atkinson is a beautiful constructed gem of a novel. Yes it is fiction yet its pearls of wisdom make you truly grateful that you came across it. A disturbing plot, the narrator, uses writing to discuss her experience of mental illness from different perspectives to come to terms with what is taking place. Yet the book is superbly effective in acting as a guide, describing different methods of writing therapy, whilst disguising itself as a fictional novel. Highly recommended.

Way of the Journal: A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing by Kathleen Adams is a fantastic book on using the power of reflective therapy to heal written by a therapist herself. The book includes a variety of exercises ensuring that there is something for everyone. My favourite ones are the more open-ended journal writing techniques where your thoughts can flow freely and you truly feel lighter after. Try it — it can be incredibly refreshing.

Happy writing! Feel free to drop me a note in the comments as to how you found the whole process — what effect did it have on you?

A big hello and thank you for reading! Passionate about literature, psychology, and life I launched Book Therapy as an alternative form of therapy using the power of literature. I create reading lists/personalised book prescriptions based on your individual needs, this is my signature personalised reading service. My book recommendations have featured in The Guardian, NBC News and Marie Claire. You can also check out Book Therapy’s free reading lists and A- Z of book prescriptions (covering both fiction and non-fiction). These suggest books based on your existing life situation (e.g. anxiety, job change, relationship heartache) as well as interests (e.g memoir, historical fiction, non-fiction, crime etc). There’s also a Children’s A — Z of Book Prescriptions. Feel free to check out the blog for more literary gems. There’s also a post on my personal story of how I entered the world of bibliotherapy and book curation. And if you’d like to connect, email me at or

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Book therapist, author, poet & founder of Book Therapy - therapy using the power of literature: and

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