Writing therapy for addiction recovery

by Eve Whittaker

Young addicts who enter a rehabilitation center to overcome a powerful addiction to substances and/or alcohol are usually introduced to a 12-step program, the kind employed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Author Anne Fletcher, a specialist in addiction and rehabilitation, however, notes that while these programs have doubtlessly been successful for many, studies show that just 25 to 35 percent of those who attend one AA meeting go on to become active participants. Others may find that the 12-step approach is not for them, yet they are not often told of the many alternative treatment approaches that exist. These approaches include Women for Sobriety (WFS), founded by Jean Kirkpatrick and focusing on healing the emotional causes that may lead to addiction; or SMART Recovery, which uses cognitive-behavioral therapy to recognize triggers for drug/alcohol use, and encourages those recovering to identify and utilize with new ways to respond to these triggers.

Yet another interesting approach involves the use of writing therapy as an adjunct in the treatment of addiction. Writing has been found to help recovering addicts recall and recover from possibly traumatic experiences and to discover different parts of their identity through the creation of fictional characters. Writing can also help those recovering discover a new talent, thereby increasing their sense of self-confidence and give them hope about the future.

Documented benefits of writing

Some of the benefits bestowed by writing on those undergoing therapy include:

  • The ability to express one’s feelings in an immediate manner.
  • A sense of greater control over how much the writer reveals, at what pace, etc. Recovering addicts sometimes complain about feeling ‘pushed’ into revealing more than they are ready to reveal.
  • Less shame: Writing can make one feel anonymous, thereby making it easier to express emotions and recall experiences without the fear of being judged or criticized.
  • Active participation: Writers can feel more confident because through their writing, they are taking an active role in their recovery.
  • Permanence: Writers can look back and note the progress they have made as time passes. They can also identify past situations and experiences that may have led them to relapse.
  • Benefits for therapists: Having a document to consult prior to a therapy session (written by a recovering client) can aid therapists when preparing for sessions.
  • Less anxiety: In an excellent study entitled Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing, one clinical psychiatrist notes “I have found expressive writing to be a useful addition to my repertoire of short-term psychological interventions for people who harm themselves… and for out-patients with stress-related symptoms, anxiety and depression. I use it together with daily mood charts, problem-solving, goal-setting, relaxation, mindfulness, exercise prescription and other interventions…”. In a study published in the journal, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, writing therapy was found to be as efficient as cognitive behavior therapy in lowering levels of ‘intrusive symptoms, depression and state anxiety’ in persons suffering from acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Since recovering addicts are forced to face extremely stressful situations as they battle temptation and worry about their future and the effects of their actions on family/friends, writing can form part of an integrated approach to addiction that also values mindfulness-based approaches. Yoga is another popular complementary therapy for the treatment of drug abuse; with its focus on controlled breathing and ‘staying in the moment’, it has been found to lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol; yoga has also been found to battle fatigue. A nutritional regime comprising whole, seasonal foods is likewise a crucial pillar of embracing a healthy lifestyle that promotes both physical and mental well-being. In this sense, writing is just one of many complementary therapies that can address the same problem from various standpoints.
  • Writing has been found to increase the amount of exercise performed in therapy groups: Often, those recovering from addiction are in a poor physical state; the pursuit of an active lifestyle is thus vital if lost strength, flexibility and fitness are to be restored. In addition to encouraging more physical activity, expressive writing has been linked to a host of positive outcomes, including higher grades for college graduates, higher rates of re-employment following a period of unemployment, fewer visits to general practitioners and health centers, and the consumption of a better diet.

Eve Whittaker is a full-time feature writer, as well as an art and photography aficionado. She has written for numerous sites on various topics over the past few years.

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Hello, readers!

As the new editor, I wanted to take the time to properly introduce myself. My name is Marissa Matton and I will be in charge of the content for this blog until the end of the Spring 2015 semester.

I am in my first year of the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. I graduated last spring from UMass Dartmouth with a bachelor’s degree in Writing, Communication & Rhetoric and minor in Literature & Criticism. I have worked in the field of web writing for the past year, and I look forward to this new position.

With your help, my goal for this year is to produce articles on a regular basis. I am eager to work with previous guest writers and I hope to see new writers as well. I encourage any readers who may not think of themselves as writers to try their hand at writing a piece or to contribute by actively commenting.

We are accepting submissions. If you’re interested in writing an entry, please read our guidelines and contact us at cltl@umassd.edu. I look forward to your comments, submissions, and questions!

Marissa