Using Your Words: How Poetry Therapy Supports Recovery

When other techniques may not allow you to break through psychological defenses — in other words, if it’s too difficult to talk directly about something — poetry therapy can help with that. It has the potential to validate how a person is feeling.” ~ Dr. Nicholas Mazza, Ph.D., Professor of Social Work Emeritus, Florida State University

Did you know that poetry therapy can help support your successful recovery from Substance Use Disorder and other types of emotional disorders? In fact, the use of poetry to enhance well-being dates back thousands of years.

Because April is both National Poetry Month and National Poetry Writing Month, let’s take a closer look at one of the most effective – yet underused – therapies available to anyone struggling with mental health or addictive issues.

First Things First – What is Poetry Therapy?

Poetry therapy is the intentional use of writing to bring about growth and healing by awakening something in (people) and giving them language to name feelings they have not been able to put into words. By naming our pain, we learn how to live with it.” ~ Dr. Marianela Medrano, Licensed Counselor in Poetry Therapy

Poetry therapy is the clinical use of poems, song lyrics, stories, metaphors, and imagery to aid healing, personal growth, and other aspects of recovery. Because it is an expressive arts therapy, it is similar to music therapy and art therapy.

Poetry has been found to be of benefit to people with such conditions as:

  • Substance Use Disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Grief

Individuals affected by these illnesses often have trouble dealing with negative emotions or painful memories. Poetry therapy helps them process traumatic experiences and validate their feelings.

This is important because being able to express what they think and feel about a painful situation or event is a key component of eventually moving forward in successful recovery.

Dr. Robert Carroll, MD, of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, says, “My job as a poetry therapist is to use poetry and voice to help people get access to the wisdom they already have but cannot experience because they do not have the words in ordinary language.”

What is a Poetry Therapy Session Like?

two people discussing poetryIn poetry, we allow for a pause to see how our experiences are resonating with our internal world and how the environment is also impacting what is happening inside of us.” ~ Dr. Marianela Medrano

Poetry therapy is a very versatile tool at the disposal of properly-trained mental health or addiction recovery specialist. It is a strategy that is applicable for individuals, couples, children, and families, and it can be used in one-on-one or group settings.

Typically, the poetry therapist will choose several poems that are relevant to the client’s life before the session. They will either read aloud from the selections or ask the client to do so. While the poem is being read, the therapist gauges the client’s reactions.

The most important part of the process is asking the client how the poem makes them feel, thereby encouraging self-reflection and validating their emotions.

Dr. Mazza, who is also the founding editor of The Journal of Poetry Therapy, says, “I would ask what the client’s reaction is to the poem, or if a particular line or image resonates with them. I might ask the person to write their own poem at home.

By carefully selecting the poems and passages used as prompts, the poetry therapist empowers clients to actually open up and unburden themselves in a healthy, often cathartic manner.

This can serve as a springboard for the client to talk about him or herself because sometimes it’s easier to talk about a poem than it is to reveal material about yourself,” explains Dr. Mazza.

The Science Behind Poetry Therapy

Research has shown that poetry activates the regions of the brain associated with introspection, i.e., self-evaluation of one’s emotional and mental state. This helps the person develop a better sense of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is intentionally focusing awareness and attention upon everything going on in your life and how it impacts your thoughts, emotions, and physical state. This knowledge helps you thoughtfully RESPOND to difficulties, instead of simply REACTING to them.

Regular mindfulness meditation triggers positive physical changes in the brain’s gray matter, greatly aiding recovery. In fact, mindfulness is so effective that practicing for just 11 minutes a day helps chronic drinkers consume less alcohol.

Poetry Therapy in San Diego

I’m very intuitive with people. Feelings in the room get into my heart and my gut. Poetry grabs me this way…All of the voices in their heads…go away and they are damn good at finding their own original story. I believe you can’t teach writing, you can only make it safe for students to write and find their own voice.” ~ Jim Hornsby Moreno, M.A. — aka “Jim the Poet”, Lasting Recovery Poetry Therapist

Since 1981, the man known as “Jim the Poet” has worked in the chemical dependency field, and in 1999, he began using poetry as a healing tool to help transform the pain arising from trauma and PTSD. As a respected expert, he currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Institute for Poetic Medicine in Palo Alto.

For his extensive work locally as both an addiction specialist and as a poetry teacher, Jim has been recognized as “Someone San Diego Should Know” by the Union-Tribune.

Jim says, “Poetry & writing is a transformational art & therapy. Watch as writers, young or adult, acquire confidence, acquire voice, acquire vocabulary, acquire narrative skills. Watch their personalities grow confident, grow strong, grow independent…the transformation is remarkable.”

Lasting Recovery, the oldest and most trusted outpatient rehab program in San Diego is honored to have Jim the Poet serving as part of our team.
Poetry therapy is not a standalone treatment option. But when it is used as a holistic therapy that supports other evidence-based strategies, the focus on “total wellness” maximizes your chances of a safe and successful return to sobriety.

For more questions about the benefits of poetry therapy, or to receive a confidential needs assessment, Contact Lasting Recovery Today.

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