March 1, 2021: Writing for Health; Writing the Heart

It’s been over two weeks since our first virtual expressive writing workshop, offered by the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research, for any Canadian living with heart failure, disease or other cardiac conditions.  The workshop was an introduction to the benefits of expressive writing, research originally initiated by James Pennebaker, PhD over 30 years ago, and which has demonstrated a number of health benefits.   We’re repeating the introductory workshop again on March 11th, followed by a first virtual small group writing workshop series, each running six weeks.  The enthusiastic response to our February 11th workshop was not only encouraging, but thanks to those who volunteered to share what they’d written in our brief writing exercises, also moving, reminding us all how important it is to encourage and to “hear” patients’ experiences of living with serious or progressive heart conditions.

Expressive or therapeutic writing, which defines the “Writing for Health/Writing the Heart” workshop and those I’ve led for many others living with serious illness and other difficult life circumstances, has the greatest healing impact in the realm of our “second” hearts, the “fraternal twin” and metaphorical heart, long considered as the “seat of emotions.” (John Stone, In The Country of Hearts, 1990).  Why write?  Turning your experience into poetry or story is a powerful way of helping you heal from the shock, trauma and upheaval of living with a serious illness or life threatening condition.  It relieves stress and can improve one’s quality of life.  That’s because keeping upsetting or negative emotions in the body is detrimental to health.  Expressive writing helps you release those feelings and get them on paper where you can begin to understand and make sense of what you feel and why.

As cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar states in his 2018 book, Heart:  A History, “a record of our emotional lives is written on our hearts…the biological heart is extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system—to the metaphorical heart.” As we write deeply and honestly, we translate the emotions suffered from trauma, serious illness, or sudden and unexpected losses into words—one of writing’s most healing benefits.  Healing begins as we to begin to release and make sense of what we have expressed on paper.

That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe…by writing I rescue myself…it relieves the feelings of distress. –William Carlos Williams, physician and poet

Stories are also the currency of medicine. Siddartha Mukherjee, oncologist and author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010), 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner of general nonfiction, also honored the importance of patients’ stories.  “A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny,” he wrote, is…simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering…to relieve an illness one must begin, then, by unburdening its story” (p. 46).

It’s in the stories of our illness experience that we communicate to our doctors that helps them understand the impact of our illness on our lives. William Carlos Williams, physician and poet, once offered advice to a medical student, saying, “Their stories, yours, mine, it’s what we carry with us on this trip we take.  We owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.

“Storytelling is human,” remarked Dr. Thomas Houston, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Commenting in a 2011 New York Times article, “Patients Share Their Stories, Health May Improve.” “We learn through stories, and we use them to make sense of our lives,” he said. “It’s a natural extension to think that we could use stories to improve our health.”

Through the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits.  –Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life

Writing and sharing our stories together is not only healing, but it helps to create a sense of community, of not being alone in what we feel or experience.  We discover hope and wisdom in one another’s stories of their medical experience.  Shared stories help us feel less alone.   And it’s through story we make sense of our lives, and reclaim our voices.  Our words, expressed honestly and deeply, have the power to touch other’s hearts.  Why not join us on March 11th for our next introductory workshop?  To learn more and register, go to:  https://tedrogersresearch.ca/writing/

Writing Suggestions

.  Write about writing:  what you find helpful; what makes it difficult.

. Think about your heart.  How has your relation to it changed since you were diagnosed with any cardiac condition?

.  If you were allowed only to write one story from your life, what would it be?

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