Bill O'Hanlon on 'The Writing Ritual'

Writing thoughts and feelings about trauma or crises for as little as 15 minutes a day for as few as four or five days has been shown to be correlated with:

  • Far fewer visits to the student health center for college students
  • An increase in T-cells (immune system functioning)
  • Increasing the likelihood and rapidity of getting a new job after being laid off
  • Reduced anxiety and depression
  • Improved grades
  • Improved mental and physical health of grade-school students, people in nursing homes, arthritis patients, medical students, rape victims, new mothers, and prisoners

How to do the writing ritual:

  1. Write honestly and openly about your deepest feelings and thoughts about the situation you are in or went through. Make sure you keep these writings private or you may find yourself unconsciously censoring what you write and diluting the effects of the writing. Consider destroying what you wrote after it is complete, again for the same reason. Perhaps making a ritual of the burning or destroying of the writing. (See the next section of this chapter for some hints about doing that kind of ritual.)
  2. Write for a relatively short time, say 15 minutes. This writing is often draining or emotionally difficult. Limiting the time makes it both a bit more tolerable and more likely that you will do it.
  3. Write for only four or five days. This time limit seemed to work very well in the experiments that were done. They are not carved in granite, however, and if you find you need more time, you can take it. One of the points of this limit of a few days is again to contain the experience so it doesn’t take over your life.
  4. Try to find both a private and unique place to write, somewhere you can both be uninterrupted and someplace that won’t be associated with other things or that have the usual smells, sights and sounds of places you already know well.
  5. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or getting it right. Just write.
  6. During the writing days, try to use the same time each day or evening to write. It’s not crucial, but it can sometime give your unconscious mind some structure and preparation time if it knows exactly when the writing will take place. This can also help contain the emotions and intrusive thinking that may occur and interfere with your day or evening.
  7. Writing seems to be the most powerful, but if for some reason, that won’t work for you, you could try ‘writing’ by speaking into a tape recorder or a video camera.
  8. Ignore these guidelines if you discover something else works better for you. Everyone is unique.

Sources: Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker, NY: Guilford, 1990.

The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being, eds. Stephen J. Lepore and Joshua M. Smyth, APA: Washington, DC, 2002.

Bill O’Hanlon, M.S., Possibilities, 551 Cordova Rd., #715 Santa Fe, NM 87505
800.381.2374, Fax# 505.983.2761, ,

5 thoughts on “Bill O'Hanlon on 'The Writing Ritual'”

  1. As someone who finds expression more comfortably through writing (and drawing, to some extent), I can only agree with this approach. For me, keeping a dream journal is a similar process. It’s also self-regulating, as I mainly note ‘significant’ dreams, which seem to occur when there is something I want to explore further. Over the years, I’ve found lots of techniques to tease out meanings in the (rather David Lynch-ian!) world of the dream, which has had the additional benefit of providing stimuli for creative writing. As things moved along, I found it helpful to keep 2 journals, 1 for the dream description and thoughts/comments; and 1 for other writing approaches to some issues which I might discover. This is also where I make note of positive events and feelings , a bit like the ‘5 things which went right today’ exercise (described earlier in this blog). Exploring dreams through writing does seem to be more of an indirect approach to dealing with crises/issues – dreams seem to have messages best read in the peripheral vision! But there is also something about the mysterious search for gems of clarity which, when uncovered, can be a fine reward.

  2. I have to confess that I’ve done very little work with dreams, maybe they are a little too Lynch-ian for me. I believe that dreams can, for the most part, take care of themselves, a kind of unconcious housekeeping that I can ‘take part in’ during sleep. If I had an obviously significant dream then I would do some work on it, but I haven’t had any humdingers recently.

    I whole-heartedly agree with the value of writing stuff down, I’ve only got into that in the last year but I find scribbling about things certainly helps to clarify things and give me pointers on where to go next. Sometimes these scribbles even end up as articles.

  3. I am now utterly entranced with the idea of ‘unconscious housekeeping whilst asleep’ ! That would be a dream!
    But that’s back to zombie-lynch-land.
    Re: value of notekeeping, Alan Bennett says that when you write something down, you ‘make it real’.
    And maybe if its ‘real’ it can be ‘tackled’ or ‘manoevered’? Just a thought.

  4. I think I would just change Alan Bennett’s remark to ‘make it temporarily real’. It seems to solidify a thought just long enough for it to be worked on, however you choose to do that. When I look back in my notebooks I find thoughts and observations that are no longer true, although they were very much at the time.

    From an NLP (or Buddhist) perspective thoughts and ideas are much more fluid than most people think of them, fixing them just long enough to change them is one of the purposes of journaling for me.

  5. The comments about sleeping and dreaming eventually reminded me of this poem.

    Last Night As I Was Sleeping

    Last night as I was sleeping,
    I dreamt—marvelous error!—
    that a spring was breaking
    out in my heart.
    I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
    Oh water, are you coming to me,
    water of a new life
    that I have never drunk?

    Last night as I was sleeping,
    I dreamt—marvelous error!—
    that I had a beehive
    here inside my heart.
    And the golden bees
    were making white combs
    and sweet honey
    from my old failures.

    Last night as I was sleeping,
    I dreamt—marvelous error!—
    that a fiery sun was giving
    light inside my heart.
    It was fiery because I felt
    warmth as from a hearth,
    and sun because it gave light
    and brought tears to my eyes.

    Last night as I slept,
    I dreamt—marvelous error!—
    that it was God I had
    here inside my heart.

    Antonio Machado
    Translated by Robert Bly


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