Writing and Health: Have you experienced the health impacts of writing or journaling? I’ve journaled intermittently since second grade when my grandmother gave me a diary for my birthday. At some level, I knew that writing was like breathing for me—necessary for life.
It wasn’t until my twenties, when I suffered from what was diagnosed as chronic fatigue and/or fibromyalgia that I discovered that writing can play a major role in healing a debilitating illness. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the role writing can play in healing and have used it in my life many times—for physical healing, emotional healing and spiritual healing.
Another fascinating discovery is that it can go the other way, too—healing can impact our writing! As we heal emotional trauma or physical illness, I have found it to free up more and more creative energy and help me as a writer.
The Research on Writing and Healing
In 1986, James Pennebaker studied the effects of certain kinds of writing on health, reporting that expressive writing can improve mental and physical health. Since then, Pennebaker and his colleagues have proven these benefits in multiple populations and with various diseases and conditions.
According to the VA Office of Patient-Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, “Expressive writing has been found to produce significant benefits for individuals with a
variety of medical conditions.” These include:
- Asthma (lung health/function)
- Rheumatoid arthritis (decreasing severity)
- Cancer (both reducing pain and improving physical health)
- HIV infection (improving immune response)
- Cystic fibrosis (decreasing hospitalization)
- Chronic pelvic pain (decreasing the pain intensity)
- Sleep-onset latency in poor sleepers
- Recovering from operations
You may have heard me talk before about Patricia Muehsam, MD‘s work and her book Beyond Medicine, which shares her healing journey, the process she used to heal herself, and that she teaches patients and students on a holistic path to healing their physical and emotional conditions.
Writing and journaling form a significant aspect of Dr. Patricia Muehsam’s protocol, whom I’ll refer to from now on as Dr. Trish, at her request.
As Dr. Trish is about to offer her healing course in a four-month online format, thought it a great time to interview her about the connection between writing and healing.
I first asked Dr. Trish to share her take on how writing can positively impact our health.
Dr. Trish began our conversation with the concept of absolute health. “In my work, I talk about a concept called absolute health, simply peace of mind. Peace of mind is where we need to be for healing to happen. The body will not heal otherwise if the body is not calm. It also is where we need to be for clarity if we’re dealing with any challenging situations besides health issues—work, relationships, finances, life path.
“Absolute health is a place of peace of mind where clarity and solutions arise. And for inspired action, we know what to do before even trying.”
I found this interesting since in my Get Your Writing Done program we tap into a similar state of relaxation and peace of mind by beginning our writing practices with some qigong movement or breathing, a nod to the inner muse, and our one-word intentions shared in the chat box. From that place, we take inspired action and write!
Dr. Trish continues, “In my work and my book, I talk about the five absolute health tools—breathing, mindfulness/meditation, journaling or writing, mirror work and mind-body sensing. These five tools are tools for cultivating self-awareness, being here now in the moment, and being present with what is.
“All of these can bring us to that place of absolute health or inner peace quite swiftly, in minutes. They do so because they change our minds, the structure and function of our brains, and our bodies.”
Writing and Health
So, where does writing fit in?
“Writing is one of these tools. It allows us to be present in the very moment, to be here now in our writing process. In Beyond Medicine, I offer different types of journaling exercises to help us practice being here now and being present with what is.
“Writing helps us to cultivate this experience of being in the moment, where we experience the presence and inner peace that arises when we stop to be in the moment of what’s going on.”
Journaling Exercises for Healing
In her book and in her healing courses, Dr. Trish offers several journaling exercises for healing and experiencing absolute health.
“One of the simplest is just making a list—helpful for people not as used to writing.
“Another exercise is stream of consciousness writing, where we write what comes to mind at the moment, paying no attention to grammar, or punctuation, being as free and loose as possible where the writing hand is holding a pen or pencil (rather than typing). I encourage people to use their hands, not a keyboard to do the writing. That stream-of-consciousness technique is powerful for being in the moment with whatever comes up in the mind. If I give someone a writing prompt when you don’t know what to write, that’s what to write next.
“I also use different exercises writing with the nondominant hand, a potent tool that can help us slow down and get in touch with what’s going on internally. [Then we] connect with what’s going on. Nondominant handwriting can help us connect with intuition and inner knowing. Don’t worry what it looks like; even just scribbling can help us access our connection to our intuition/inner wisdom!”
The Science Behind Writing and Healing
“There are a lot of studies on journaling’s effects on health, especially expressive writing, writing about feelings that have immediate and long-term impact on our health. Expressive writing toggles on the parasympathetic nervous system, which facilitates resting, repair, healing, sleep and digestion.
“Conversely, when the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze) is on we can’t rest, relax, sleep, heal or digest. Those functions are impossible when the sympathetic nervous system is turned on. Just writing about feelings helps to bring us to a place of calm, getting in touch with what’s going on internally. Writing can slow us down and get in touch with us. In the process, it relaxes us, even when writing about difficult thoughts and feelings; just getting them out helps train a state of ease and peace in both mind and body. This is where we need to be for healing to happen and for resolving difficult situations, to get answers without effort.”
How Dr. Muehsam Found Healing Through Writing
Trish shared her experience, “In the past, I’ve been a patient a few times over, and I share these in Beyond Medicine. There were times I was confused about what path to follow for healing. I would always turn to writing to get clarity and often started with just list making, making a list of my questions/confusions.
“I often went to stream of consciousness—flowing writing, where new ideas come. Then, I often got clarity from that. I also used inner child journaling: Using my nondominant hand as the inner child, what am I needing?
“I often got clarity about how to proceed and connected with the underlying emotions. Every physical issue has an emotion and often an emotional root cause.
“I use journaling to get a sense of what’s going on body-wise and emotionally. With my broken arm and extreme physical pain, I couldn’t journal with my right hand but used my nondominant hand to write about the pain and explore the emotional roots of the pain. All physical pain has an emotional component and the physical pain cannot go away without addressing the emotional component. Pain is in our body, thoughts and emotions. Recent research explains exactly how emotions are clearly linked to physical pain. The fibers in the brain that transmit emotional info to our emotional awareness center travel along the same highway as the pain fibers that transmit the sensation of physical pain. Acute pain, once it becomes chronic, no longer activates the physical pain center in the brain, but it activates the emotional center.”
More on the Research
“Remembering an event that caused pain can elicit pain. We think it’s the shoulder that’s acting up, but it’s the emotions that are acting up. This research is borne from clinical studies and placebo surgeries—for example a knee study. One group had surgery for chronic knee pain, and one group had sham surgery, and the people who had the placebo did better! The apparent physical cause was not the cause of their chronic pain.
“In the early work of Dr. John Sarno, his theory was that mental and emotional stress and repressed trauma were the primary causes of back pain. The mind and emotions play a powerful role in our physical health. And writing can be a path to healing since it addresses the underlying emotions.
“When I’m anxious or angry or frustrated, overworking, not listening to my body’s needs, my pain increases. Writing is a beautiful way to slow down, explore the inner landscape, and get in touch with our feelings. And I always encourage writing by hand.”
How Healing and Health Affect Writing
In my experience, healing also affects our writing. Healing experiences often open me up to the creative muse, and I find myself writing poetry or getting new ideas for books I might write, for example. My first published book came out of healing from chronic fatigue syndrome and the polarity therapy work I immersed myself in.
So, I asked Dr. Trish about this two-way link.
How Does Vibrant Health Affect Your Writing?
Dr. Trish answered, “When I’m in a state of calm, my writing flows. When I was working on my book, the writing flowed when my mind and body were in a place of peace, what I call vibrant health. In that place of ease, new ideas would arise, my writing would flow, and new ideas came without effort; they weren’t ideas I had to list out; they arose as I wrote.
“Ideas also arose for my writing when I was in a state of peace and not at my keyboard, and I had a habit of grabbing the idea and writing it on the notes section of my phone, and I trusted those ideas even more than the ideas that came when I was trying to gather information.
“Great metaphors and images would come. I wasn’t interfering with it or filtering it. It was just flowing through me. I might be walking my dog, and as soon as I got home, I would note it somewhere.”
Surrender to the Moment
“That never happened when I was trying to get the writing going, ever. I had to often surrender to the moment. I had to let go of the trying. When working with my editor, when I was trying, that blocked the flow of ideas and the goodness of the writing.
“I would need just to stop and return to a place of peace before resuming. That could be 10 minutes of closing my eyes or 20 minutes of walking in the park. It didn’t mean I only wrote when inspired. I would go to my computer every day in the morning and write. I’d work on other tasks, such as research, if I were in a not-peaceful state of mind. But other times, I would pause and do a mini-meditation or breathing and take a pause away from my desk to return to that state of absolute health.” [Hey, just like we do in the Get Your Writing Done sessions—movement and breath to get things moving and entrain into creative flow!]
Dr. Trish had the same thought I did.
She added, without knowing what I was thinking, “The way I understand and experience healing is the way you teach accessing your inner writer.”
“Why does peace help us access the best ideas and the most profound writing? We don’t access intuition, inner wisdom or creativity in a state of stress. Might we not access creativity when the sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze) nervous system is turned on? We can’t connect with the inner muse and creative process when trying to ward off the saber-toothed tiger.”
Experience Absolute Health
So maybe you’re excited about these tools of absolute health and what they can do for your physical health and your creative life.
I asked Dr. Trish to share the details, and here they are:
Beyond Medicine Immersive Course, is a four-month online course. Here are some of the benefits that participants might experience:
- Teachings and practical tools for healing yourself and transforming your life, many of the tools incorporate writing.
- True healing arises from a place of peace within. That place is where we need to be to get well or navigate challenging life situations. It’s where we find clarity and solutions because it’s where we need to be to access our wisdom, intuition, creativity, and life force.
- Access life force for writing, creativity,
- Place of peace that offers solutions, wisdom, and creativity.
What’s Significant About this Course
“I’m offering these tools for healing one’s life, but what’s important is that I’m teaching a revolutionary way to feel well and thrive in all the ways that matter to you. It’s revolutionary because it’s simple, effortless and available to us at this very moment. What people will learn is that they are their own medicine, how to access your inner healer, how to find your way to that place of inner peace easily, where intuition flows and creativity arises, that place we need to be to facilitate healing of the body.
“You will learn to know that unlimited capacity to heal yourself and your life because our medicines lie within.”
If Dr. Muehsam’s book and courses had been available when I had chronic fatigue, the healing path would have been much easier and quicker. I encourage our readers to explore this incredible opportunity in Dr. Trish’s book and immersion course. Full disclosure: I am also an affiliate of Dr. Trish’s program, which means if you sign up through my link I will receive a commission. I take part in a small number of affiliate programs and only ones that I think will be of great benefit to my readers.
Now, let’s return to my conversation with Dr. Trish Muehsam:
“Returning to the notion of absolute health, peace of mind—it’s so accessible to all of us —a stop, a pause, and a breath away. We can use those writing tools to take us there. Peace of mind is our essential nature. We were born to be in a state of equanimity. A calm and peaceful mind creates a calm and peaceful body, where creativity can easily flow.
“A disturbed mind creates stress in the body, literally. Every thought and every emotion has an instantaneous effect on the physical body—neutral, supportive or detrimental. Healing happens when the mind becomes calm, at peace.”.
About Patricia A. Muehsam, MD
Patricia A. Muehsam, MD, a pioneer in synthesizing science, holistic health, and contemporary spirituality, has distinguished herself as a practitioner, educator, research scientist, and author. She has been an influential force in shaping the landscape of healthcare options available today. Muehsam’s groundbreaking book, Beyond Medicine: A Physician’s Revolutionary Prescription for Achieving Absolute Health and Finding Inner Peace, has been hailed by Larry Dossey, MD, as the “only health and healing book you will ever need.” Founder of Transformational MedicineTM, Dr. Muehsam’s services include health consultations, mind-body healing sessions, classes, and retreats. She lives in New York City with Benjamin, her adopted Golden Retriever and sage spiritual advisor.
Sign up for—or find out more about—Dr. Trish’s course: Beyond Medicine: A Physician’s Revolutionary Prescription for Healing Yourself and Transforming Your Life. The course begins on October 10, 2023.