What does the art of committing words to paper do for you? Well, if you’re writing about your past experiences, you’re doing a mighty important positive thing for your physical and mental health.
Psychological science says emotional writing can:
- boost your immunity, and save you quite a few visits to your doctor,
- increase your happiness and wellbeing,
- lessen the intensity of a painful memory,
- help you throw away the burning coal of anger you hold in your hand.
Pennebaker and his writing lab
James Pennebaker, the Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, was the first researcher to show us why writing can be important for our health. Back in the 1980s, Pennebaker started a series of experiments he called expressive writing.
Expressive writing is penning down your deepest thoughts and feelings about an extremely important positive or negative event from your past, over a few days or weeks.
The first study in 1983 recruited 46 psychology undergraduates. They had to go to Pennebaker’s lab for four days running, and spend 15 minutes each day writing about the biggest trauma, or the most difficult time, of their lives.
The immediate experience was one of upset. Some even cried. For the first few days, these students were found to have higher blood pressure and negative moods. Pennebaker, however, kept a watch on them for the next six months. His findings, published later in 1986, were eye-opening.
During those six months, these students made fewer visits to their college health centre.
It seemed as if the expressive writing had increased their immunity to diseases. It started a new field of study — psychoneuroimmunology.
Pennebaker later co-wrote a book on it: Expressive Writing: Words that Heal.
How writing helps you heal
What Pennebaker started out with was to find why certain people coped better with major upheavals in their life, and if there was a way other than social support to help with the healing process.
Expressive writing, as it turned out, was that.
- Writing about a painful, stressful, negative life event can help you arrange your complicated emotions and thoughts in a much more relatable way.
- Writing seems to create a psychological distance from your pain. And this kind of dulls your feeling of the pain that comes with a memory of the event.
- Putting feelings into words also gives the writer an advantage of readability. Once written, they can look at the words, instead of looking back at the memory, and reappraise their trauma more objectively. This could help them find a new meaning in their experience and discover healing.
Pennebaker and Chung write in Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology that the common themes explored by participants in all of their studies centred around:
- lost loves,
- sexual and physical abuse incidents, and
- tragic failures.
After writing through all those and disclosing their deepest emotions, most admitted this was a valuable and meaningful experience in their lives.
Expressive writing: Important replication studies
Since those initial experiments in the ’80’s, a number of later studies at various other labs could replicate Pennebaker’s findings and add more.
These follow-up studies discovered expressive writing increased subjective wellbeing, enhanced cognitive functioning, bettered learning and recall, and improved interpersonal healing.
In a small study on women with breast cancer, it was found they had fewer symptoms that needed a visit to their doctors after expressive writing. Overall, they made fewer cancer-related appointments in the next 3 months.
Researchers King and Miner found that people who only wrote about the positive side of painful life events were able to confront, control, and arrange their thoughts and feelings about their traumas without having to re-experience the event deeply.
Researchers Vrielynck, Philippot, & Rime observed that the degree of specificity used in the writing seems to relate to the stage of relief.
That is, the more precise and specific you are while writing about the emotional event, the better it helps you to feel less stressed while facing the event, to make better sense of the experience, and to express less anger when thinking about it.
The advantages of Pennebaker’s methods are not justconfined to writing about the traumatic and negative events. Hope and positivity also exist at the opposite end of that spectrum.
You could write about a positive memory, and it would also raise your happiness levels.
Writing about a pleasant event from the past can make you happier in the present, as you get to re-live that joy today. It gives you the feeling that you’re sharing that joy with a dear friend, that friend being yourself.
Researchers Burton and King discovered writing about an intensely positive experience (IPE) for 20 minutes a day for 3 days can create a greater feel of wellbeing. And it also linked to fewer health centre visits for illnesses.
Writing can start you out on a path of forgiveness. McCullough, Root, and Cohen found people who write about the benefits of the wounds they received from others, become less distant, more benevolent, and less vengeful toward the wrongdoer.
This tempers their stance towards their transgressor and helps them forgive.
Science has its ways to explore things and form plausible theories and discard them if evidence doesn’t support them.
Findings of Pennebaker have been replicated through subsequent years and found to hold up. Yet, he kept a sharp eye for studies that could debunk his theories. Now, that is the hallmark of a true scientist.
Let’s close this with a fabulous and yet-so-important quote from James Pennebaker:
“Theories are grand but never take them too seriously. Their importance is in guiding research. If your data do not support your theory, trust the data more than your theory.”
Q: What to do when you’ve many traumatic experiences to choose from?
Pennebaker: Focus on the event or issue that you are thinking about most at the time. You can always change topics as needed.
Q: Is it a therapy?
Pennebaker: It can be therapy but… it was a method I had tried on my own and discovered that it seemed to work amazingly well. I prefer to call it a method rather than a therapy.
Q: Why write three times or why for 15 minutes?
Pennebaker: The simple answer is that is what we have found what works. But, since the original studies in the 1980s, many researchers (including me) have found that there is no one true way to write. Some studies have found that writing for as little as 2 minutes or as long as 30 minutes can be beneficial. Most studies have varied between 2 and 5 writing times with comparable effects. Sometimes people write multiple times on the same day. If you are thinking of trying out writing for yourself, experiment. See what works. If you are a researcher, experiment. See what works.
Q: Are there any situations where it is contraindicated?
Pennebaker: There is no solid evidence to suggest specific situations where expressive writing would be contraindicated. However, in my experience, I would be reticent to urge people to write in the immediate aftermath of a major upheaval. I generally recommend that people write if they are thinking about an upsetting event too much.
If a person is thinking about the death of a very close friend all the time in the days after the event, this is not too much. It’s probably normal. But if they are thinking about the same death a year later, I’d consider that too much.
A second circumstance where I would not recommend expressive writing would be when someone is in the depths of a depressive episode. People are already heavily self-focused when deeply depressed and writing naturally encourages more self-reflection.
Despite these two potential cautions about writing, I’ve met people who have really wanted to write immediately after a major upheaval or even when deeply depressed and who report that they benefited. As with all psychotherapy, if a person feels that a method is not working or is harmful, they should stop it and try something else.