Healthy, well-adjusted people after having emotionally challenging experiences, can carry unprocessed emotions for many decades, be it childhood angst, conflicts with family and friends, or remorse over missteps and lost opportunities. During several scientific studies, researchers asked participants to write about a disturbing experience for 15 to 20 minutes a day for three or four consecutive days. The point of the exercise is not to craft a perfect essay, but to dig deeply into one’s emotional baggage, then translate the experience into language on the page.
Interestingly, an analysis of participants’ writing about trauma found that those whose health improves most tend to use a higher proportion of negative emotion words than those associated with positive emotions. The increasing use of insight, and associated cognitive words over several days of writing is also linked to health improvement. The creation of a coherent story, with the expression of negative emotions, work together in therapeutic writing. Evidence of these processes are seen in the immediate improvement in autonomic nervous system activity.
I believe this research confirms the ancient truth, “to thine own self be true.” Self-honesty allows the realization that we have the inherent capacity to define every experience, regardless of the depths of emotional pain it may have caused, rather than allow the experience to define us. Not only do we possess the psychological and spiritual wherewithal to survive all experiences, we equally possess the ability to heal and to thrive.
Investigators remain unclear as to the precise way writing effects the body and makes it effective medicine. Until 1999, research in this area had focused on healthy individuals. Dr. Joshua Smyth and colleagues studied the effects of journaling in individuals experiencing asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. The study is believed to be the first using standardized, quantitative outcome measures to examine how writing about stressful events affects specific illnesses.
The study included 112 patients, 61 asthmatics, and 51 rheumatoid arthritics. 58 asthmatics and 49 arthritics completed the study. Patients were assigned to write either about the most the most stressful event of their lives or emotionally neutral events for only three days, 20 minutes each day. Four months later, nearly half of those who wrote about stressful events such as car accidents, abuse, divorce, or sexuality, had improved significantly. Asthma patients improved lung function by 19% on average. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis, had a 28% improvement of symptoms.
“We can do a good job with medication, but we can do a better job if we also pay attention to people’s psychological needs,” said Dr. Smyth, now an assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.
“This indicates that a very minimal psychological social interaction can have very substantial medical effects. And it indicates that stress may play a role in the progression of illnesses like arthritis and asthma.”
Writing in the April 14, 1999, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association he stated, “Were the authors to have provided similar outcome evidence about a new drug, it likely would be in widespread use within a short time. Why? We would think we understood the ‘mechanism’ (whether we did or not) and there would be a mediating industry to promote its use.
Manufacturers of paper and pencils are not likely to push journaling as a treatment addition for the management of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. But the authors have provided evidence that medical treatment is more effective when standard pharmacological intervention is combined with the management of emotional distress. Ventilation of negative emotions, even just to an unknown reader, seems to have helped these patients acknowledge, bear, and put into perspective their distress.”
(Adapted from Opening Up by James W. Pennebaker, and The Write Way to Wellness by Kathleen Adams)
1. Writing helps integrate and organize our complicated lives in a variety of ways.
2. Writing clears the mind.
3. Writing helps resolve traumas that stand in the way of important tasks.
4. Writing helps in acquiring and remembering new information.
5. Writing fosters problem solving. It forces people to sustain their attention on a given topic for a longer period of time.
6. Writing lowers the blood pressure and heart rate, and benefits the immune system.
7. Writing improves lung function in asthmatics.
Pennebaker, James W. Telling Stories: The Health Benefits of Narrative
Literature and Medicine – Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2000, pp. 3-18
Adams, Kathleen. The Write Way to Wellness