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April 22, 2024

The Link Between Writing and Healing — and How it Can Help You Reduce Binge Eating

Written by Dr. Gia Marson

A traumatic experience may be holding you back from developing a healthier relationship with food. 

Feeling out of control when you eat. Eating until you’re uncomfortably full. Experiencing shame or embarrassment at how much or what you’ve consumed. 

These are all symptoms of binge eating disorder, which involves eating large amounts of food in a short period of time.

If you suffer from this, you’re not alone. 

Binge Eating Disorder is the most common eating disorder.

But like other eating disorders, a relationship with food is not the only issue at play. Binge eating disorder has been linked to a history of trauma. People often battle how to manage intense negative emotions and may turn to food for comfort, escape, or as a distraction. 

If you have this entrenched connection in your brain, it’s difficult to fully heal from the eating disorder without addressing past trauma or intense, distressing experiences. 

Facing distress takes a lot of courage, but it may free you

But research suggests that writing can have a positive impact. 

In fact, more than 200 peer-reviewed studies show that “emotional writing” can help both physical and mental health. 

The word “writing” might make you tense up, especially if it’s something you’ve only done in school. But we’re not talking about term papers or book reports. 

With this type of writing, there are no grades. No teacher marking out your carefully crafted sentences in red pen. No journaling about your day. 

Instead, expressive writing that has the power to heal trauma is different. It involves specific — and simple — exercises that are tailored to you.   

There is a scientific connection between writing and healing

James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin is a preeminent researcher in this space. He first studied the link between writing and mental health in 1986. Since then, there have been dozens of other studies confirming his findings: Writing can heal.

Specifically, “expressive writing” about a traumatic event for as little as 15 minutes a day for four days in one month brings benefits like improved mental health and better sleep. 

Researchers believe that when someone puts words to an experience or emotion, they potentially change how it’s organized in the brain. 

This can help you better understand how a past event affects your present reality — which is the first step toward change.

Expressive writing can also positively affect the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which controls sophisticated functions like contextual planning, values, motivation and self-concept. This region can be harmed by trauma.

Participants who used expressive writing reclaimed more intentional control. With improved self-regulation, you can reduce trauma symptoms like hyperarousal, flashbacks or intrusive memories.

You can get started with an expressive writing exercise 

Please note: You may benefit from working with a licensed therapist while engaging in this exercise, especially if you become dysregulated when thinking about the trauma or distressing situation that has been holding you back. It’s not always necessary, but clinical support can offer you compassionate expertise, holistic help, and give you a space to process your thoughts and reactions. 

If you’re ready to try expressive writing, set aside about half an hour. Maybe grab a special notebook or fancy pen. 

Then go through these steps: 

  1. Choose something that’s been affecting your internal state. 
    This might be something you’ve been worrying (or even dreaming) about. It can also be a specific trauma that you know has negatively affected you. 

  1. Set a timer for 15 to 30 minutes and write down whatever comes to mind. 
    Don’t stop, and focus on writing continuously. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling.
  1. Answer these guiding questions to identify your feelings: 
    What are the facts of the experience? What emotions did you feel at the time? How do you feel about it now? Can you identify ways this experience affects your current thoughts or behaviors?

  1. After the timer goes off, breathe. 
    Take some time to allow your autonomic nervous system, which might be triggered by this activity, to heal. Some calming ideas include gentle yoga, watching a silly movie, lighting a candle or cuddling with a pet. 

Then—and this is important—write about the same experience again. 

To stimulate the most change, write about the same situation four times within one month. 

A week after each session, go back to your journal entry. Underline the positive words and circle negative ones. Take note of the patterns. Does your writing trend more negative or optimistic? 

Notice how the breakdown of positive vs. negative words evolves from the first writing session to the fourth. There is no right or wrong here. Just be curious, as your brain is beginning to accept and process what you went through.

Writing can be difficult, especially if it’s not something you do often. 

Writing about your personal fear, anxiety or trauma is even more challenging.

Putting words to paper about your experiences can help you process, move through, and accept hard feelings 

By naturally rewiring your brain, you can start healing from an eating disorder linked to trauma or intense distress. When you can find healthier ways to process difficult emotions, you’ll be less likely to turn to food as a coping mechanism. 

You may not be able to rewrite what’s happened to you.  But you can write the next chapter.


DISCLAIMER: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.

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