Within the fields of psychology and oncology, writing therapy is a common tool to find better mental health. Now, new new research from Macquarie University
shows measurable improvements in the mental health of breast cancer survivors when they engage in compassionate writing therapy.

The therapy

There were several steps in helping the participants find better self-compassion through the writing therapy named My Changed Body. The name addresses how many breast cancer survivors feel, especially after having gone through surgery and some having gone through lymphedema—a swelling of the arm caused by the removal of lymph nodes that requires visible compression garments.

First, the survivors write about how they feel about their own bodies after cancer surgery and treatment as well as a negative experience they’ve had that directly relates to the changes in their body. Then they write as if to a close friend in a similar situation. Finally, they write a compassionate letter to themselves, but with the audience of all breast cancer survivors in mind.

The trial was a success, with most participants reporting improved body image and mental health. On average, their body image-related distress was reduced by 30%, their anxiety by 30%, and their depression by 24%. These improvements lasted for up to three months after they completed the writing exercises.

In the future

The research team behind this innovative trial intends to recreate it with a second round of studies to further explore the benefits of writing therapy on the mental health of breast cancer survivors. One of the key details of this therapy is that it was all done online, at home. This makes participating easier for the survivors. The accessibility and low cost of the therapy means that survivors can work on their mental health from their own home whenever it’s convenient for them.

The key element in the study was helping the survivors shift their perspective and find their self-compassion and self-confidence. This is why writing as if to a friend and with other survivors in mind is an important part of the trial—it helps the writers generate distance between themselves and the subject of their writing, a breast cancer survivor.

One in three people with breast cancer suffer from body image-related distress and one in four survivors develop long-lasting anxiety and depression. Other people with breast cancer as well as breast cancer survivors could be inspired by this life-changing research to begin their own journey of journaling in an effort to work towards better mental health, combating anxiety, depression, and body image distress.

Author's Bio: 

Paige Riddiford is an Australian writer. She is passionate about talking and writing honestly, tackling topics that are often considered taboo, such as mental health. She has been writing professionally for years, ever since she graduated with a Bachelor of Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong.