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Promoting Healing and Wellbeing One Poem at a Time

June 29, 2018

A visit to the Website of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT) would tell us that the use of literature, and poetry in particular, as a therapeutic means is not a new concept. The practice goes back to ancient times when the shamans would chant poems for the wellbeing of people in their tribes. Currently, librarians, teachers, therapists, coaches and other professionals are using literature for healing and personal growth purposes.

Furthermore, in the second Century AD, the Greek physician Soranus, was prescribing poetry as supplemental treatment for certain mental disorders. The historical foundations of this practice go back to Apollo, the god of medicine and poetry in ancient Greece. Aristotle in his Poetics discusses the role of catharsis in effecting emotional healing. In the United States poetry therapy has been used widely since the 1840s.

Poetry therapy is the intentional use of literature to promote healing and personal growth. The number of studies showing that a writing practice could lead to better psychical, mental and emotional health are increasing consistently. Poetry therapy is an umbrella term for interventions such as therapeutic writing, journaling, storytelling and bibliotherapy. Writing as a therapeutic tool has a multiplicity of purposes including clarification of personal goals, clarification of one’s identity, promoting self-expression and advancing social justice.

Despite the paradoxical fact that some poets and creative individuals have succumbed to depression, anxiety and, in some drastic cases, to death by suicide; poetry has and continues to serve as a healing balm to many and as a means to clarify personal and societal values. Practitioners and facilitators continue to show that writing is not hazardous to our health. Rather, it fosters wellbeing and goals clarification so we can move on to take actions aligned with what matters to us the most.

The work of James Pennebaker, a leading researcher in the field of writing as a therapeutic means, shows that even though writing can result in short-term increases in negative emotions, after a while writing for therapeutic purposes is associated with decreased symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His research has also shown that therapeutic writing decreases visits to doctors, physical symptoms of pain and increases the performance of the immune system. In addition, his research has shown how self-expression through therapeutic writing is associated with behavioral changes that improve performance in college students as well as the prevention of absenteeism, both from school and work.

Most individuals who write for therapeutic purposes will easily identify the positive impact on their emotional functioning and acceptance of feelings. The use of writing in the clinical setting is associated with a stronger development of self-awareness and problem solving skills.

In Poetry Therapy: Interface of the Arts and Psychology, N. Mazza (1999) highlights how the “pluralistic base of poetry therapy” has evolved as research continues to focus on the effects of poetry in different therapeutic capacities. Mazza indicates that in poetry therapy, “clients are not asked to identify the ‘true’ meaning of a poem, but rather the personal meaning”. This approach to literature gives individuals ownership of the piece as they personalize it. This process increases tenfold when the person produces his or her own writing in response. In this sense, poetry therapy as a model has the following components:

  1. The receptive/prescriptive component, which involves the introduction of a literature piece (poem, fragment of stories, songs, etc.), into therapy.
  2. The expressive/creative component involving the use of client writing in therapy.
  3. The symbolic/ceremonial component involving the use of metaphors, rituals, and storytelling.

Through the incorporation of these three components the facilitator is able to address cognitive, affective and behavioral manifestations of the human experience. The three components sited above can be easily incorporated in just about any healing and developmental arena. In other words, poetry therapy is not a stand-alone therapy but an ancillary to other modalities such as psychotherapy, personal development, coaching and education.

The cure is partly in the identification with the literary piece and greatly in the sympathetic resonance generated between the literary piece and the recipient. The completion of the healing cycle happens when writing emerges in the voice of the person, speaking very personally. For instance, a person experiencing despair can find some solace, if not a mirror, in which they can see themselves reflected in Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers.”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

The poet reminds us that hope is forever perched in the soul and therefore readily accessible for those who delve deep. The therapist picks up on the resonance between text and the reader/client and encourages further exploration and expression of that which has been uncovered.

Dr. Marianela Medrano is the founder of Palabra Counseling & Training Center, LLC where she offers ongoing poetry therapy training for professionals and individualized services for those seeking therapy. She is a certified poetry therapist and a mentor-supervisor qualified to train and supervise those aspiring to be poetry therapists or facilitators.

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