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How Writing Saved My Life

He was wracked by flashbacks and numbed by stress, until...

WebMD Feature

March 20, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Six years ago, Vietnam veteran John Mulligan was a homeless "shopping cart soldier" in San Francisco's North Beach, a man wracked with flashbacks and numbed by post-traumatic stress disorder. But his life took a turn during a veteran's writing workshop conducted by noted author Maxine Hong Kingston.

At the first workshop, Mulligan wrote about a horrific scene from the war: his buddies turning their weapons on a water buffalo for fun, sport, and misplaced revenge. The blood, the noise, the sense of loss and waste were all there.

Mulligan, now a 49-year-old novelist, left the workshop so elated he was "whistling and skipping." In the following years, he repeatedly discovered that putting past horrors into words helped clear his mind and lift his spirits. "I had to face my demons," he says. "I was an empty shell walking around the street, and writing made me feel like I had a soul."

Souls may be beyond the reach of science, but many researchers echo Mulligan's conclusion: Writing about stressful events can be powerfully therapeutic for body and mind.

Confronting Dark Memories

Dozens of studies have found that most people, from grade-schoolers to nursing-home residents, med students to prisoners, feel happier and healthier after writing about deeply traumatic memories, says James Pennebaker, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and leader or co-leader of many of the studies.