The Therapeutic Power of Writing Poetry: More Than Just Words on a Page
Writing poetry is often considered an artistic endeavour, a realm of romantic impulses and expressive reveries. However, there’s an increasing body of evidence that suggests that the act of writing poetry can serve a deeper, more therapeutic purpose. In a world mired in stress, mental health issues, and emotional turmoil, poetry can serve as an important therapeutic tool. I want to briefly look at how writing poetry can be therapeutic – it has always been for me – and discuss examples, and look at how therapists are incorporating writing into their practices.
Narrative Conflicts: A Root Cause for Concern
Before we look at the hows and whys of using poetry as therapy, it’s essential to understand the concept of ‘narrative conflicts.’ We all have multiple layers of narratives running in our lives – personal narratives, social expectations, religious beliefs, and more. Sometimes, these narratives can conflict with each other, causing mental and emotional strain. Understanding and resolving these conflicts can be key to addressing underlying mental health issues.
Writing Poetry as a Form of Self-Therapy
Self-Expression: Poetry allows us to articulate feelings that might be too complicated to express in everyday language.
Perspective-Taking: Writing from different points of view can offer new perspectives on old problems.
Emotional Release: Sometimes, writing a poem can serve as a form of emotional catharsis, allowing for the release of pent-up feelings.
T.S. Eliot and ‘The Waste Land’
T.S. Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ in the aftermath of World War I, during a period marked by personal difficulties, including health problems and marital issues. The poem captures the disillusionment of a generation and mirrors Eliot’s emotional turbulence.
Eliot was suffering from what would now be termed as burnout and nervous exhaustion. He was emotionally drained, mentally stressed, and had even temporarily separated from his wife, Vivienne. All these factors contributed to what became a psychological crisis.
Writing as a Form of Catharsis
‘The Waste Land’ served as an outlet for Eliot’s existential dread and internal chaos. The fragmented narrative, the multiple voices, and the cultural references all serve to externalise the conflict that Eliot was feeling. By writing it down, he was effectively taking the turmoil out of his mind and setting it down on paper, making it less overwhelming and more manageable.
Addressing Narrative Conflicts
The poem deals with several conflicting narratives – spiritual emptiness, societal breakdown, and personal disillusionment. These conflicts echo the broader idea of ‘narrative conflicts’ that can lead to mental stress. For Eliot, writing the poem was a way to explore, articulate, and reconcile these conflicting narratives, thereby achieving a sort of mental equilibrium.
The act of writing the poem didn’t solve Eliot’s problems, but it offered him a way to manage his emotional and psychological struggles. It also propelled him toward further self-exploration, leading to a more profound understanding of his own condition and his world views.
Writing as a Professional Therapy Tool
Therapists are increasingly incorporating writing into their practices.
Here are some ways they do it:
Journaling: Encouraging patients to keep a daily or weekly journal to track their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.
Prompt-based Writing: Therapists might provide specific prompts designed to explore particular emotional issues or cognitive processes.
Group Writing Sessions: These provide a community experience that can be highly therapeutic.
Dr. James Pennebaker:
The Foundations of Writing Therapy
Dr James Pennebaker, a distinguished psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a trailblazer in researching the psychological and health benefits of expressive writing. His work has provided a scientific basis for the use of writing as a therapeutic tool, moving it beyond anecdotal evidence and into the realm of empirically-supported treatments.
The Pennebaker Paradigm
One of the landmark contributions of Pennebaker’s research is the development of the ‘Pennebaker Writing Paradigm.’ In this model, participants are instructed to write about emotionally traumatic or significant events in their lives for 15–20 minutes over several days. This practice, as he found, led to improved mental and even physical health.
Pennebaker’s studies showed that expressive writing could lead to benefits such as:
Reduced symptoms of depression
Improved coping mechanisms
Lower stress levels
Improved coping mechanisms
Improved immune system functioning
Mechanisms at Play
Pennebaker suggests that the act of writing allows individuals to organise and give structure to traumatic or emotionally-charged experiences, facilitating cognitive processing. This helps to reduce the long-term stress associated with keeping thoughts and feelings internalised.
Today, the principles derived from Pennebaker’s research are applied in various therapeutic settings, including counselling, psychotherapy, and even online mental health platforms. The techniques are used not only for treating emotional trauma but also for handling everyday stressors and improving overall emotional well-being.
Natural Storytellers: The Human Connection
Humans have an innate ability to construct narratives; it’s how we make sense of the world. By addressing conflicts in our inner narratives through poetry, we can better understand ourselves and navigate the complexities of our emotions.
Whether you’re a seasoned poet or a complete beginner, consider giving therapeutic poetry writing a try. The pen, it seems, maybe as mighty as the couch!