Can Writing Heal Physical Pain?

Let me preface this post by saying, discussing my personal struggles with pain is my least favorite subject. The only reason I’m even broaching this subject is because I discovered a cool connection between writing and pain management, and I hope it’ll help those who need it.

Last week, New Hampshire got hammered with one snowstorm after another, the totality of which resulted in snowbanks taller than I am. With such unsettled barometric pressure and weather patterns, my RA and psoriatic arthritis kicked into overdrive. For me, writing has always been the best pain medicine. When I’m in the zone, I leave my fractured skeleton in the chair and escape into my fictional world. But something—email, social media, direct messages, marketing, blogging, phone calls, and texts—kept yanking me out of my fictive dreamland when I needed it most, and the moment it did, my body screamed in protest.

And so, for self-preservation, I climbed back into my writing cave, padlocked and soundproofed the door behind me. Hence why you didn’t see me in the comment section last week, or on social media. For once, I put my own wellbeing above everything else. By the time I emerged from the writing cave a week later, I’d added over 30K words to the WIP. Now, I only have one or two chapters left to reach The End of Mayhem Series #7. Yay!


The U.S. Pain Foundation describes chronic pain as the following:

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.

Is it any wonder we’d seek an escape?

With chronic pain, the pain travels through the emotional area of the brain or sympathetic nervous system. The emotion and pain pathways are so closely linked that it’s only possible to experience meaningful pain relief when you break this connection. Separating our emotions from our pain pathway is a learned skill, and writing plays an important role.

When we write, our brains release chemicals that calm the nervous system. Daily writing creates new neural circuits in the brain, giving us new ways to respond to old pain triggers. The new, healthy circuits eventually grow stronger than the old pain circuits.

A 1986 study uncovered something extraordinary, something that inspired generations of researchers to conduct several hundred more studies.

The gist is this. Professor Pennebaker asked students to spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives. Or, if they hadn’t experienced trauma, to write about a difficult time. Meanwhile, a control group spent the same number of sessions (4) writing a description of something neutral like a tree or their dorm room.

For the six months that followed the study, the professor monitored how often students visited the health center. Remarkably, the students who’d written about their trauma and real emotions made significantly fewer trips to the doctor. Ever since, the field of psychoneuroimmunology has been exploring the link between what’s now known as expressive writing, and the functioning of the immune system. Psychoneuroimmunology studies examine the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines, with surprising beneficial results.

Writing even heals physical wounds faster.

Brave volunteers engaged in expressive writing; a second group did not. Days later, they were all given a local anesthetic and a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm. Researchers monitored the 4mm wounds. The volunteers who engaged in expressive writing healed faster than the others.

What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this occurred through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d released pent-up emotions. But then Pennebaker dissected the language used by the two groups.

The fast healer’s point of view changed over the course of the four sessions. They began with 1st person, then moved to deep 3rd, suggesting they were looking at the event from different perspectives. They also used “because” and the like, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. The results proved the simple act of labeling your feelings and putting them into a story boosts the immune system.

Sounds a lot like crafting fiction steeped in real emotion, doesn’t it?

What Pennebaker found curious but makes perfect sense to me (and you, probably) is that simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it also made wounds heal faster, concluding that the writing has less to do with resolving past issues and more to do with finding a way of channeling real emotions.

Despite several decades of research showing that writing works to manage pain, it’s rarely used clinically. Also, the process works better for some people than others, depending on how well they engage with the process.

So, the next time you’re in pain, lock yourself away in your writing cave. Your body and WIP will both thank you. 😉

Do you have any personal experience to share? What do think about these studies? 

This entry was posted in #writers, #writerslife, #writing, #WritingCommunity and tagged , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

28 thoughts on “Can Writing Heal Physical Pain?

  1. ❦No surprise. It’s evident at many levels that we have an innate need to make our deepest self visible from outside us, a healthy form of projection.
    ❦Poevian slips illustrate an all-too-powerful need to reveal what is in our minds and souls, as described in Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse (1850).”
    ❦It’s a cliche that all first novels are autobiography. But subconsciously, so are the 2nd and 3rd and so on. We just get better at disguising ourselves therein, even from our conscious minds. All art is projection, too.
    ❦Writing and talking about our experiences is cathartic, certainly. In fact, therapy was once called “the talking cure.” Art therapy is also effective: displaying ourselves by creating expressive art that is visible to others. This is all healing. But our deepest self is more than our trauma, more than what has happened to us. The act of creating enhances our soul.
    ❦I once created an alternate world where Moses brought 20 Commandments down from the mountain. Number 11 was: “Thou shalt create.” It is said by some that a God created us in His own image. If so, then if God is a Creator, so are we.

  2. Wow, Sue, incredible. Every time you delve into how the brain works, the info is fascinating and fresh. 30K words in a week is a great accomplishment. Congrats!

    For me, writing takes a toll on the body. My osteoarthritis balks when I sit too long so I need to get up and move a lot. It’s a daily balancing act between the compulsion to create vs. the aching back, hips, etc.

    Wishing you continued pain relief, my friend. As a bonus, the more books you produce, the happier your fans are!

    • Agreed, Debbie. I need to move around every so often, too. But last week when I got up to get the blood pumping, I never left the WIP, dictating scenes into my phone. Worked great! My word count shocked me. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you block out the world. It’s not sustainable, of course, but works when we need it most.

  3. Interesting–I hadn’t thought much about the possible impacts of writing on physical pain. And when we do think about it, we tend to the think of the standard problems we hear like maladies that come as a result of spending a lot of time writing such as carpal tunnel or physical issues from sitting too long, etc. It’s good to consider the flip side of that scenario.

    I have often wrestled with people’s different experiences with writing’s effect on our emotional side as compared to my own experiences. So many people DO get emotional relief by sitting down and writing. Yet for the last several months it’s been very hard to drag myself to the page because of distractions with all the chaos around us. But as you state in your post–you made a decision to shut down distractions and let writing work it’s positive work, and it did.

    So there ARE many benefits to writing, and even in this deep dive about writing and physical health it bears out one of the rules we’ve heard time & again — to sit ourselves down and write. 😎

    • Exactly, Brenda. We need to consciously choose to ignore the chaos and deep-dive into the story. And y’know what? It’s a well-needed break from the outside world. Horrible for sales, but great nourishment for the soul.

  4. Fascinating. I think there’s something to this. It’s been shown that, all things being equal, people heal faster at home than in the hospital. When we write, we’re “home.” Makes sense to me.

    • Precisely, Jim. Our minds control a lot more than we’re conscious of. By flipping that switch to intentionally lose ourselves in our writing, our bodies are free to heal. And I can attest to how great it works. Sucks for sales (ignoring the outside world for a full weekish), but to get past a difficult time, there’s no better medicine for the soul.

  5. Sue, I’m sorry you’re suffering pain, and I’m glad you’ve found a way to alleviate some of it. You’re always so encouraging and upbeat that it’s easy to believe you’ve never experienced anything bad, which is a lesson for everyone. Thank you for this post! {{{(Hugs)}}}

    • Thank you, Becky. Means a lot. {{{hugs}}} Now that the storms have passed, I’m slowly getting back to my usual happy-go-lucky self. 😀

  6. This explains how I’ve been able to go so long without therapy.

    I’ve been writing since I was nine, with no aspirations for publishing for the longest time, and now that I started therapy, I’m coming to realize just how much crap I was dealing with. I especially like the concept that we can deal with emotions if we name it, then look objectively at it. Even before writing, I would give myself a different name when playing (no matter what my sister and I were doing) which basically functioned as being in a story.

    Thanks for the post. They’re always fascinating.

    • I’m so glad you found the post helpful, Azali! And you’re right. Through writing, you were already in therapy and didn’t realize it.

  7. Good morning, Sue.

    I’m sorry to hear about the snow and the pain, but I’m glad you found relief in your writing. Thanks for telling us about the Pennebaker studies. Interesting stuff. I don’t doubt the results.

    With low back pain, previous disc surgery, too much bending and lifting, I’ve had chronic low back pain. I discovered that resting in a position with my back slightly flexed in the lumbar region, and my knees flexed (the “recliner position”) resulted in less pain than tossing and turning in bed. When I discovered a light laptop and began writing in a recliner, I felt wonderful and didn’t have to get up and walk around for pain relief. I thought it was the position. Now I know that it was also the writing. Thanks, Doc!

    Congratulations on the fantastic one-week word count. And good luck with finishing Mayhem #7!

    • “Doc.” Hahahaha! I’m sure your positioning helped, but you also set your mind free through writing. The more I study the brain, the more I’m convinced of its power over our physical bodies.

      Thanks, Steve! My most productive writing week, bar none.

  8. Good morning, Sue. First, I’m sorry to hear of your chronic pain problems, but I’m happy to hear the glow of creativity can help overcome even that.

    And 30K words in a week! Your keyboard must have been on fire! It’s good to see you back on TKZ and hope the weather in your area of the world is more moderate now.

    Best wishes with the new book.

    • Thanks, Kay! The story just poured out of me. Love when that happens. I’d never produced that many words in a week. It’s amazing what we can accomplish by blocking out the outside world. My problem now is trying to get back into swing of juggling numerous things. *sigh*

  9. Another bit of experience to share: I’m a chemical engineer, not a doctor, and this is not intended as medical advice. Check with your doctor and see what he/she advises. There is a body of literature supporting the use of phosphoric acid or sodium phosphate in cases of RA, based on the work of a French agronomist, Henri Joulie. An early US reference to Joulie’s methods is found in a paper from the Journal of the American Medical Association: The New Conception and Treatment of Gout, A. Morel-Lavallée, JAMA, Volume 37, Part 1, August 17, 1901:
    Page 479: “—The Journal has already mentioned—p. 289—Joulie’s recommendation of phosphoric acid as a means of restoring missing acidity to the organism. He is not a physician, but in his chemical research he discovered that 12 out of every 13 arthritic subjects are hypoacid, and that only one is hyperacid[1]. Instead of being saturated with uric acid, as generally assumed, by far the larger proportion of gouty and other arthritic subjects suffer from the lack of normal acidity. He remarks that almost any acid would answer the purpose and comply with the therapeutic indications, but for various reasons he recommends phosphoric acid as the best treatment for all forms of the arthritic diathesis in which the acidity of the urine is subnormal…”

    I’ve had some relief of my RA from ordinary drugstore “phosphates,” a very dilute form of H3PO4. They don’t seem to help my OA, however.
    Phosphates are classified by the FDA as “Generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Proper handling and dilution of chemicals is important.

    • Good to know, J. Thank you! That’s been my problem, as well. Some things work on my RA but do nothing for my PsA or Osteo. Doctors have no answers, except, “We can try something else.” No, thank you. I’d rather find homeopathic remedies than be guinea pigged to death. Had enough of that to last a lifetime.

      • ☕ I agree. I think Hahnemann was onto something. Or maybe he was just “on something.” At least he (probably) never killed a patient directly. His mistake was pushing homeopathy as effective for every disorder. It may have actually worked on a few. Otherwise, it’s felgercarb.
        ☕ The care (or lack of meds!) at London’s Homeopathic Hospital was so good, they lost fewer patients than any other major hospital during London’s cholera epidemic of 1854.
        ☕ Most analgesics are hard on the stomach. I’m allergic to acetaminaphen and “Voldemort Gel.”
        ☕ Dr. T. Burton Smith* prescribed Phospho-Soda for my kidney stone ~1967. It was gone from my x-rays the next day.
        ☕ There is just enough H3PO4 in Diet Coke that it might help RA. I’m not recommending it, however. “Just sayin’.”

        * White House physician to Ronald Reagan

  10. I spent a lot of years working at writer and fan conventions. I mainly was an author wrangler. My college years, I dealt with famous poets and literary writers. Later, it was science fiction and other genre writers. I developed a douche rating. Poets are the biggest douches who are all about me, me, me. Literary authors are a bit better, but their fiction tends to be me oriented. Genre writers are much better people because they are all about different perspectives. Shockingly, the nicest genre writers weren’t romance writers with their sweetness and light but splatter-punk horror writers who put everything negative and positive out there. My observation from all this is that it’s not just physical pain that writing affects but emotional pain and stability as well.

    • Somewhere on my desk is a big red rubber stamp that says:


      I’m looking for it now.

      From the author bios I read, the southern lit genre writers (Chris Offutt, Daniel Woodrell, Flannery O’Connor et al.) never seem to really fit the literary mold.

      Maybe the litpoets don’t know that outside the walls there’s a peasant revolution burning in the countryside.

  11. So glad the writing helped with the pain last week! I discovered a long time ago that writing not only blocks physical pain, it helps with emotional pain. Writing helped save my sanity after my husband died.

  12. What a fascinating post, Sue. I just read this the morning after you published it because it’s crunch time for me on this novel revision, and spent yesterday holed up in my writing cave. And that was after being at a retreating retreat at Lake Quinault in the Olympic rainforest for five days. I need to wrap the book today or tomorrow and I still have a ways to go.

    This is really interesting. Key obviously would be to really open yourself up, even as you fictionalize it. That was something I struggled with for many years, but am better about now. I’ll be saving this post and referring to it going forward.

    Congrats on 30K in a week! That is fantastic! Hope you have a great week.

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