Poetic Medicine: No Fight, No Flight – Just Write!

Dr. Sherry Reiter, LCSW, Registered Poetry Therapist Mentor

What do my clients — a pregnant teenager, an 83 year-old in a nursing home, a recovering alcoholic, and a veteran with ptsd have in common?  Because I am a clinical social worker and a Registered Poetry Therapist/Mentor-Supervisor, I encourage clients to express their kaleidoscope of emotions through writing. I often gift my clients with a small, inexpensive journal where they can vent, externalize emotions, and cognitively identify and organize their thoughts. The research is in. Writing has been proven to up the t-cells and boost the immune system in college students who wrote 20 minutes a day for four days straight about a disturbing trauma they had experienced. They had fewer doctor visits for the next 4-6 months!

Confronted with crisis, scientists tell us there are three responses to stress: fight, flight, or freeze. The book Writing Away the Demons: Stories of Creative Coping Through Transformative Writing (North Star Press, 2009), co-authored by my clients and colleagues, features a different response to stress —the creative coping response of writing. Transformative writing is a way of completing those incomplete traumatic responses. By finishing the poem and by telling the story we complete our frozen and disoriented responses. A place that was previously dark is illuminated.

Freud once said, “Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious.”  Jack J. Leedy, a New York psychiatrist captured public interest in the 60’s in a Times Magazine article in which he sardonically remarked, “Take two aspirin and one poem and call me in the morning.” Jokes aside, poetry, story, and bibliotherapy are powerful tools in the hands of the trained social worker or group worker who knows how to use them.

Poetry Therapy is, according to The National Association for Poetry Therapy, an umbrella term for all written forms that are intentionally employed for therapeutic purposes. It.includes the use of journaling, reading, writing, and videos that act as a catalyst for discussion between the therapist and the individual(s). The National Federation for Biblio/PoetryTherapy has granted registration to hundreds of individuals who practice poetry therapy, the majority of whom are social workers. As a group worker and clinician, I have found poetry therapy to be the most powerful tool I possess. I have used it with psychiatric clients, persons in recovery, the handicapped, the elderly, and “normal neurotics” in private practice as well as at Coney Island Hospital, Kingsboro Psychiatric, Housing Works, and New Horizons Recovery.

What is the philosophy behind this interactive, dynamic tool? Poetry galvanizes an emotional response when it is carefully chosen to reflect the conflicts of the client. For example, for a person who has difficulty talking about grief, this simple but beautiful poem by Langston Hughes, elicits a rapid response:

I loved my friend
He went away from me.
The poem ends, soft as it began –
I loved my friend.

Poetic prescriptions enter the heart and spirit of our clients immediately. And when a person writes, the writing may hold a message that is key to helping the client to heal. Whether writing is imported (brought in to the client) or exported (brought out of the client), its messages are often wise and profound. As W.H. Auden wrote, “In the desert of the heart, let the healing fountain start.”


Dr. Sherry Reiter, LCSW, PTR-M/S trains helping professionals at The Creative Righting Center in New York City and teaches poetry and drama therapy at Hofstra University in January 2012. She is an international speaker and workshop leader. Currently, she coordinates a long-distance writing program, with her poetry therapy trainees, in a project called Poets-Behind-Bars, in a maximum security prison.  Persons interested in knowing more, may go to www.thecreativerightingcenter.com or for writing exercises, take a look at http://www.sherryreiter.blogspot.com

This entry was posted in Disaster & Trauma, Social Work Practice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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