a journal and pen used for expressive writing

By Millie Quiñones-Dunlap

Expressive writing has been a game-changer in my life; it allowed me to explore both the physical and emotional pain that has been lurking inside of me. Writing has helped me to close some very painful chapters. Unfortunately, I still have chronic physical pain and I will for the rest of my life. It’s how I live with the pain that matters now. I signed up for a “Writing to Heal Trauma” workshop given by Anais Salibian through the Rochester Writes program. The workshop was amazing; I took it three times! Rochester Writes programs are hosted by the Arts & Literature Division and supported by the Suressa Forbes Fund for Local Writers and the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library.

I am a Teacher/Librarian who was injured in a school cafeteria fight in 2005. I have had eleven back surgeries; my most recent back surgery was this past May. I have had six additional unrelated surgeries over my lifetime. I lost my fallopian tube and my uterus over the years. I have had two spinal stimulators, an internal pain pump, all types of medications including both opioid and non-opioid, pain and psychiatric medications, trigger point injections, facet joint shots, epidural shots, physical therapy, water therapy, chiropractic care, cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT for chronic pain, and dialectical behavioral therapy or DBT coupled with years of talk therapy. I tried ketamine treatments. I have bouts of depression and anxiety and sometimes insomnia. I purchased an adjustable bed in hopes of a good night’s sleep. I was so angry because I was a victim of school violence. I have a permanent disability to show for it. I let anger rule my heart; anger makes it close to impossible to heal. The Writing to Heal Trauma workshops taught me that I need to rewire my brain. Rewire what, you ask? 

I learned how to use expressive writing to do a deeper dive into my own experiences, memories, and trauma. On the first day of the workshop, I wept inconsolably while reading my piece to the group. The piece “Choose to write or choose to die” was multi-layered with pain. I laid my head on the table, simply mortified, because I had a breakdown while Anais asked, “may I lay my hand on your back?” She gently laid her hand on my back until I could breathe again and she whispered, “we are here and we understand.” There was an intimate silence in the room; I was surrounded by people who understood the depth of my pain. I was overwhelmed by my pain, overwhelmed by my trauma, overwhelmed by my conditions, and definitely overwhelmed by my situation. I have my bachelor’s degree in theatre arts, yet I could not keep myself together long enough to read a poem in front of a group of people without having a full-on panic attack. I felt so very broken and alone.

So, what could I do? I made a choice. I chose to write. 

“Severe chronic pain can be compared to falling into an abyss, leaving sufferers depressed, anxious, angry, and socially isolated. In fact, studies have revealed that the impact of chronic pain on a person’s quality of life is equivalent to that of terminal cancer.” — Dr. David Hanscom

When you try to put your hand over a hot burner on the stove, your brain signals to you that it’s hot and you quickly move your hand away. This acute pain center lights up circuits in the nociceptive area, the acute brain center, alerting you to move away. 

Imagine if you can’t move your hand away from the burner even though you know it’s going to hurt. You get that signal telling you it’s too hot, but you cannot move your hand away. How would you feel? Angry? Enraged? Fearful? Panicked? You can’t stop the pain even though you know it’s coming. These natural emotions set off chemicals and hormones like fight-or-flight adrenaline, cortisol, and histamines which sensitize the nervous system, raise anxiety levels, and amplify our sensation of pain.

When pain lasts for more than three months, it is considered chronic pain. One-third of all Americans suffer from chronic pain. Your doctor treats the acute part of the pain. What about the emotional piece to that pain? They should go hand in hand.

The neurological circuit in the acute brain center goes quiet when the pain is chronic; the emotional area of the brain starts lighting up. The patient experiences the same pain but through the emotional area of the brain or the sympathetic nervous system. When pain is centered in the emotional area of the brain, it is subject to the stresses of everyday life. What does that mean? The better we control our stress and negative emotions, the better we control our pain. Intense feelings can trigger pain when there is no physical course to the pain. 

Expressive writing addresses the emotional and neurological connections to pain. There have been more than one thousand writing studies in neuroscience to show its healing power. Writing puts space between you and your thoughts. You become the observer of your own thoughts when you read them back to yourself on paper. Writing causes the brain to release chemicals that actually calm the nervous system. Writing daily creates new neural circuits in the brain; this gives you new ways to respond to old pain triggers. The new, healthy circuits grow stronger than the old pain circuits that are responsible for your old pain. Writing coupled with healthy eating, exercise, meditation, and good sleep hygiene work wonders.

Expressive writing is about HOW YOU FEEL about the things that have happened in your life and HOW YOU FEEL about the things you have experienced or witnessed in your world. 

Expressive writing should be free-flowing from your own heart. Don’t worry about proper grammar or spelling. Focus on your feelings and perspective. Focus on your five senses to make your writing come alive. 

1. Hearing 2. Seeing 3. Tasting 4. Touching 5. Smelling

Give yourself five to fifteen minutes a day. Use a timer. Write down your thoughts. Do not stop once you start writing. Do not think about what you should say. Just let it flow… and let it go. Once that pen hits the paper, keep writing without interruption. This allows you to tap into your subconscious, where the true feelings sit. Once you finish writing, you can keep it or throw it out. Show it to somebody or keep it in a private journal. This writing is for you and only you—unless you choose to share it. Write in the morning. Write right before bed. It helps you sleep better. Write in the afternoon. I don’t care when you write, just write. Most people find that they keep writing once the timer goes off.

Writing freed me from my own demons over time. Writing gave me something to look forward to when my world was bleak. Writing gave me perspective. Writing kept me honest. Writing saved me. 

So, now it’s your turn. Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Think about the following question.

What trauma or emotional upheaval has been influencing your life the most? 

Think about that for a few minutes.

Set your timer.

Ready. Set. Write.

About the Author

Millie Quiñones-Dunlap is the leader of U.S. Pain’s The Writing Room support group, which teaches attendees how to get started with expressive writing. Millie has been a New York State Certified Teacher/Librarian for twenty years. She previously coached her local high school Slam Poetry team, and is a spoken word artist and writer. Millie has lived with chronic pain and disability for sixteen years. Click here to learn more and register for the next meeting

The author recommends the following to learn more:

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Cameron, J. (2016). Artist’s way: 25th anniversary edition. Penguin Books.

Expressive Writing (Greater Good in Action). Practices. (n.d.). https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/expressive_writing.

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Journaling Ideas: What to Write About in a Daily Journal. Develop Good Habits. (2021, June 30). https://www.developgoodhabits.com/what-write-journal/.59 

Keltner,Dacher,PRX and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (2015 Dec 19) The Power of Expressing Your Deepest Emotions (15 min.)

Hanscome, D. (n.d.). EXPRESSIVE WRITING: YOUR FIRST STEP – Elation. DOC Journey: Direct your own care. https://elation.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/DOC-Expressive-Writing.pdf.

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Marinella, S. (2020, April 1). Write to Heal From Trauma, Illness or Loss: 7 Prompts to Explore Now. MASSAGE Magazine. https://www.massagemag.com/write-to-heal-118863/.

Marinella, S., & Baldwin, C. (2017). The story you need to tell: writing to heal from trauma, illness, or loss. New World Library.Marinella, S. (2020, April 1). Write to Heal From Trauma, Illness or Loss: 7 Prompts to Explore Now. MASSAGE Magazine. https://www.massagemag.com/write-to-heal-118863/.

Migraine Facts. Migraine Research Foundation. (2021, January 15). https://migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine/migraine-facts/.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1991). Writing Your Wrongs. American Health, 10(1), 64–67.

Pennebaker, J. W. (2013). In Writing to heal: a guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval (pp. 26–42). essay, Center for Journal Therapy, Inc.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: how expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. The Guilford Press.

Porreca, F. (n.d.). Lost but making progress-Where will new analgesic drugs come from? . Chronic pain affects the brain. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Chronic-pain-affects-the-brain-Damage-to-peripheral-nerves-or-to-the-CNS-can-produce_fig1_264794322.

Salibian, A. (2008). Writing to Heal. Rochester Women, (September/October 2008), 22–23.

Salibian, A. (2018). Writing To Heal Trauma Workshop. Rochester; Monroe County Central Library.

Selby, K. (n.d.). 32 Chronic Pain Statistics to Help You Understand Your Health. Cancer and Chronic Pain Statistics. https://www.asbestos.com/cancer/chronic-pain-statistics/.

The Path of Chronic Pain. Infographic: The Path Out of Chronic Pain. (n.d.). https://www.curablehealth.com/infographic/path-of-chronic-pain-download.