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What Writing Will Do For Your Recovery


Author: Justin Mckibben

Whoever though that writing would inspire freedom in recovery? I know before getting sober I had no clue the power of the written word, and now I write about recovery for a living! Life can be described in many ways an expression of connections and associations with the world around us, the people we interact with, and the contribution we make both emotionally and intellectually. More often than not our minds limit our own expression based on what we know of society, stigma and our own insecurity.

In sobriety we are challenged to write down things we have hidden, about our past and about ourselves, and to take personal inventories to identify with the disease of addiction and the ways it enhances or inhibits our lives, but many addicts and alcoholics do not know where to begin. Also, keeping a journal is a common tool for enhancing your sobriety, so the task of free writing is great practice for making honest emotional connections to the written word, and research has shown that writing not only improves on emotions, but also on the immune system, and creates new freedom in recovery.

“Free Writing” Works

Free writing is a practice an individual can exploit to improve the quality of their writing and the thought process that goes into creating genuine sentences. In free writing one can use any object as their own personal Rorschach test for entering a stream of associations.

How does this work? You simply look at any object and write the first thing that comes to your mind, and you keep writing without stopping, rereading, or crossing out. When you start this chain-reaction of association, soon an image will emerge, then a memory, and then a paragraph. Whatever you put down on paper will be a manifestation of these associations, which are unique to you and your experience.

Researching Impacts of Writing

In 1986 the first systematic testing to determine the power of language to relieve trauma was done by James Pennebaker at the University of Texas in Austin. Pennebaker turned his introductory psychology class into an experimental laboratory. Pennebaker started off with a healthy respect for the importance of inhibition, of keeping things to yourself, which he viewed as the glue of civilization. But Pennebaker also assumed that people trying to suppress being aware of uncomfortable or inappropriate information took a toll on them as well.

Pennebaker continued his study by asking each student to identify a deeply personal experience that they’d found very stressful or traumatic. He then divided the class into three groups:

  • Group 1 would write about what was currently going on in their lives
  • Group 2 would write about the details of the traumatic or stressful event
  • Group 3 would recount the facts of the experience, their feelings and emotions about it, and what impact they thought this event had had on their lives.

All of the students wrote continuously for 15 minutes on four consecutive days while sitting alone in a small cubicle in the psychology building. The students took the study very seriously, and much of the research revealed information regarding personal issues like sexual traumas, and minor to major health problems, and the students assesses their own understanding of the impact of writing these things. When the students themselves were asked to evaluate the study, they focused on how it had increased their self-understanding. Many students concluded that writing out the experience and attached emotions helped them to find peace of mind, by helping them to express and identify their feelings by having to put them on paper. It is now widely accepted that stressful experiences — whether divorce or final exams or loneliness—have a negative effect on immune function.

Writing for Your Recovery

Numerous experiments attempting to replicate Pennekbaker’s protocols have since been conducted, experiments that unanimously show that writing about upsetting events improves physical and mental health.

The point being that it has been proven that writing helps with trauma and health. So why would writing down things like a personal inventory with a list of resentments, harms, fears, conduct and defects be beneficial? Because science! It is a coping skill that we can repeat anywhere, on a computer, pen and paper, even taking notes in our cell-phones.

So when looking at 12 Step work, or even simply keeping a journal in recovery, sober addicts and alcoholics have the ability to identify with their emotional sobriety and mental stress that is associated with their behaviors, their past experiences, trauma and with their life actively using drugs or alcohol. This can actually give people the chance to eliminate their negative attachments, or to at the very least address them to better understand the feelings and actions associated with their past.

Writing in recovery is an incredible tool that can be used to set the mind free. Freedom from the emotional stress, freedom to have creative stimulation, and the freedom to explore and understand our lives as recovering addicts and alcoholics is another way we can train ourselves to grow in our recovery.  Recovery is a gift, and if we can write down a few things every day that remind us of that, we are on our writing our own story of an amazing future. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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