The Evidence Base for Expressive Writing
The health benefits of expressive writing have been demonstrated in research literature for over 30 years and reported in the media such as Writing for therapy helps erase effects of trauma . James Pennebaker pioneered this research with a study that showed college students who wrote about traumatic experiences 15 minutes/day for 4 days had 43% fewer doctor visits in the months following than those in the control group (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). In Expressive Writing: Words that Heal (Pennebaker & Evans 2014), Pennebaker notes over 300 studies have been published on the health benefits of expressive writing, on immune function, chronic disease, cancer, grades, social interaction, working memory, etc. Long-term effects have been found repeatedly: people feel happier, less negative, and depressive and anxious symptoms decrease in the months following expressive writing. Research also shows “all types of people” benefit from expressive writing (ibid., pp. 9-15; Lepore & Smith, The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being 2002; Writing Therapy: Using A Pen and Paper to Enhance Personal Growth.
The therapeutic benefits of expressive writing have been featured in recent articles about how to deal with the stress of Covid-19 How to Stay Optimistic When Everything Seems Wrong; Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal written by Elizabeth Bernstein talking about ‘Expressive writing’—recording your deepest thoughts in short sessions—can help relieve stress and boost health. Feeling Upset? Try This Special Writing Technique
Poetry Heals Evaluation
In 2019, Poetry Heals received an award from the Colorado Springs Health Foundation to conduct an evaluation of its workshops. A professional evaluator observed multiple workshops for four months, surveyed 71 participants, and conducted interviews with hosting institutions. Results are as follows:
1) The observation evaluation concluded that workshops are an enjoyable “safe space” where genuine feelings are shared and respected. Humor is often prevalent, even when topics are serious. Participants and mentors get to know each other well, especially with repeat attendance, and they share much about their lives as they write together. Healthy snacks are provided, and the atmosphere is both intimate and informal. The mentors watch these dynamics carefully, and while one presents the writing exercises of the day, the other watches the participants for their reactions to make sure they are comfortable and works them one-on-one if they are not. The participant-mentor ratio is typically one to five or less.
2) Seventy-one surveys were completed by participants from four groups: Inside Out Youth Services (23 LGBTQ+ youth), Warriors First (17 veterans), Creating Art Can Tell Untold Stories, or CACTUS (22 veterans), and Pikes Peak Library District (9 homeless). Most participants had attended workshops more than once, some up to 12 times.
|Poetry Heals Participant Survey* (n=71)||Answered Yes|
|1. Was participating in Poetry Heals a Positive experience for you?||99%|
|2. Did you learn about writing?||90%|
|3. Did you learn about yourself?||96%|
|4. Did you write about things that surprised you?||89%|
|5. If you wrote about difficult experiences, was it helpful?||95%|
|6. Will you continue to write after this workshop?||94%|
|7. Do you feel proud of the writing you did in Poetry Heals?||93%|
|8. Do you think writing can be healing?||100%|
|9. Did you enjoy writing in the company of others?||96%|
|10. Did you feel seen and heard in Poetry Heals?||99%|
Two open-ended questions were asked, and responses are shared in full below, with alternating font colors (black and blue) indicating separate responses. The first asked participants to share additional thoughts or feelings they had about the workshop, including how it could improve. Responses were overwhelmingly positive, including the following:
I was surprised to hear what I was capable of. I feel both more lifted and at peace after Poetry Heals. We have a good time! Wonderful job keeping all on task and making everyone feel heard, respected, and comfortable. It was a great workshop. I enjoyed the open format and the freewriting. I really like Poetry Heals! I like the positive feedback. This was cool. I love the group writing experience. It made poetry much more accessible from the beginning. I think it’s great, definitely something to keep doing. I think this is a great program. I enjoyed. I loved the interaction. You are on a spiritual connection…finding out about the group was random synchronicity leading me toward what I wanted for the day. It was awesome. I didn’t think writing could help with the problems I am having after the military. The prompts and level of creativity connected to this program are wonderful. It is amazing! No improvements. I’ve done poetry workshops but none quite like this. I really enjoyed it. My hand hurts now. I enjoyed challenging myself to write on the poetry prompts you had on the whiteboard.
The second question asked participants to share their feelings about writing, and including the following responses:
Thank you for opening me up! Writing is amazing and one of my favorite things. I have always enjoyed poetry. It was great getting to sit down with others and explore new avenues. I believe it can and is healing for many people. It’s a core foundation of personal expression. Writing can be interesting and exciting. I should write always. It is life necessary. It is a wonderful outlet. It’s so valuable and helpful to all involved. It saved my life.
Only one comment was not as positive:
Take this with a grain of salt, writing for me is a sore spot and something I generally avoid.
3) In interviews with hosting organizations, program directors stressed the value of being able to offer Poetry Heals as part of their service mission to help their clients recover from trauma and find a community. One program director said a client told him that Poetry Heals “saved [his] life.” When asked to reflect on whether or not Poetry Heals programming might prevent suicide or suicide attempts, program directors said they felt processing trauma in Poetry Heals contributed to better mental health, which may prevent suicidality. One said he believed that writing has become an alternative to risky and self-harming behaviors for workshop participants.