Poetry promotes mental healing

overhead photo of cliff at the coast, with a poem called "The Shape of the Space."

2020 was a pivotal year for the National Association of Poetry Therapy (NAPT), which saw its membership jump nearly 40%.

Because of the pandemic, the nonprofit was forced to cancel the in-person conference planned that spring in Albuquerque. But as the saying goes, the show must go on.

“We shifted to a virtual mini-conference, and members began leading all sorts of virtual workshops and events, including Open Mic nights via Zoom,” said Jazmin Hamilton, LMFT, board secretary for NAPT who lives in Eugene. “People were connecting with us from all over the world, not just in the U.S. It was a huge source of healing for all of us, and the beginning of the pandemic was the most connected to poetry therapy I’ve ever been.”

What is poetry therapy?

In short, poetry therapy is either the writing or reading of poetry to help identify and process emotions. It is a form of mental healing that humans have practiced in some form for centuries. It dates back to the ancient Greeks and was eventually lauded by esteemed 19th century thinkers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The roots of the National Association of Poetry Therapy (founded in 1969) can be traced back to the vibrant poetry scene in 1920s Manhattan, specifically Greenwich Village, where inspired poets practiced and promoted the healing power of poetry.

“Writing poetry can help untangle and organize your thoughts and feelings,” Hamilton said. “Our emotions can feel really overwhelming, and when you start writing about what you’re experiencing you create a little bit of a safe distance. So, there’s you—the person who’s writing. And then there’s this thing—an emotion, such as fear, anxiety or grief, and it’s on a piece of paper, and that alone can help it feel smaller and more tolerable. From there, you get to control the story you tell about it.”

overhead shot of a mug of coffee with a haiku

“Name it to tame it” is a famous line coined by a psychiatrist, referring to how children can better process their feelings if they label their emotions and say it out loud or write it down. Poetry can be used in this way, Hamilton said, to help manage what feel like unmanageable emotions.

“When we’re overwhelmed with emotion, our amygdala, or lizard brain, can take over and cause us to panic, telling us something’s horrible and not OK,” Hamilton said. “But if we identify and name the horrible thing—our emotion, our brain’s pre-frontal cortex comes online, which is the more cognitive part of the brain. It’s a kind of mindfulness that can be really healing.”

The structure of some poems can also be therapeutic, as some “rules” can act as a road map. Some poems feature rhymes, or a specific rhythm. One of the most popular types of poems is the haiku, which calls for five syllables on the first line, seven on the second and five on the third.

“Being able to funnel something that feels really big and overwhelming into a concise, sometimes beautiful little nugget can be a big relief,” Hamilton said.

Pandemic poetry themes

We asked Oregon Health News readers to submit their original poems about the pandemic, and one of the biggest themes expressed by our reader-poets was what Hamilton refers to as “ambiguous loss.”

“We all lost things differently,” Hamilton said. “Some people lost very tangible things, like a loved one. But for a lot of people, they’re having a hard time but don’t think they should be because nobody close to them died. It’s this sense of, ‘I’m feeling a lot of loss, I’m grieving, but I can’t point specifically to what I’ve lost.’”

We lost community, for example, at least in the way we used to know it. We lost time, in a way, as plans for travel, work and education were put on hold.

“I’ve had so many clients who said, ‘I’m struggling so much, and I feel silly because I get to work from home, my family is healthy, this is fine.’ But you don’t feel fine. You just don’t,” Hamilton said. “You’re not choosing to not feel fine. You’re struggling, you’re suffering. You’re depressed, you’re anxious, and it’s as valid for you as it is for anyone. But it can be extra hard to grieve when you can’t point specifically to what you lost. And I think writing helps with that, by writing down your personal, unique experiences of loss during the pandemic, making space for that, accepting it.”

Another common theme in the reader poetry we received was isolation and with it, loneliness.

“We’re not meant to face dragons alone,” Hamilton said (paraphrasing famous couples therapist Dr. Sue Johnson). “We are wired to be connected from the moment we’re born, and we can’t survive in isolation. One of the most natural ways that humans come back into emotional balance is to reach for a safe person who’s going to say, ‘I’m with you in this. You’re not alone.’ It’s just part of our how we’re built—feeling safe when we’re connected with other people.”

photo of a the backside of a person looking out the window at the word, with a poem called "Pandemic Solitude."

Also, when people hold multiple thoughts or feelings that contradict each other, it can be stressful. It can feel wrong. Hamilton talked about making space for these conflicting parts of ourselves, which was necessary for so many of us during the pandemic.

“Maybe what you hate about COVID is the fear and isolation, but maybe there’s some things that you love about it too, right?” Hamilton said. “Like, getting to be home with your kids more. And writing things like this down, in poetry, things that seem unspeakable or unacceptable, can create kind of a safe container to hold things that seem like they can’t or shouldn’t coexist at the same time. I think that felt really relevant with COVID.”

Reading poetry

Reading poetry is also a powerful healing tool, and one that Hamilton uses in her private practice as well as during group therapy sessions. When a client is going through something that reminds Hamilton of an existing poem, she’ll share the poem with them.

“Think of it like a poetic prescription,” Hamilton said. “We might read it aloud and I’ll ask, ‘What stands out to you? What do you connect with? What was surprising to you?’ There’s something so healing about the common humanity, to think ‘Hey, I’m not the first person to have felt this. I’m not the last person that will ever feel this. And the person who wrote this poem, maybe 100 years ago, was going through something that I can totally relate to.’”

After holding events online for the past few years, NAPT held this year’s annual conference in person, in Denver. But the online events necessitated by the pandemic were so popular the organization continues to offer virtual events for anybody to join.

To learn more about poetry therapy, check out the NAPT website. There, you can download the Integrative Medicine packet which offers a series of examples of how reading and writing poetry can help people of all ages and life situations.