As a writer, I’ve always known that getting something down on paper feels great.
I’ve always thought it was because it lets you transform the mental soup that is your thoughts, your memories, your emotions, your visceral responses, into something concrete, and perhaps even artful. You sort of metabolize them—and also surface the stuff so you can take a good hard look at it.
And you don’t have to be a writer to get this benefit.
Jonathan Pirdle, a writer for philly.com’s health blog, posted a piece called “Writing Your Way to Health—Stress Free” in which he discusses some of the research around “expressive writing” or “written emotional disclosure”—documented in a study by researcher James Pennebaker as an investigation into whether writing about traumatic events could promote long-term health effects. And so I looked into it a bit.
What the Study Showed
According to work previous to Pennebaker’s study, not confiding in someone else about a traumatic event—repressing it, essentially—was found to be associated with increased incidence of stress-related disease.
So, Pennebaker and his team wanted to find out if expressing it in writing could help mitigate those effects.
In the study, he had 46 healthy undergrads write about either personally traumatic events or trivial matters on four consecutive days. He found that overall, writing about the emotions and facts surrounding a traumatic event were associated with—and this is interesting—higher blood pressure and negative moods right after writing, but fewer visits to the health center over the next 6 months.
In other words, writing about trauma now may not be comfortable, may even make you ornery, but may be a pay now, not later situation.
(Here’s another study I found in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment that suggests that writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations.)
Try This Writing Exercise Today
These tips come from the University of Texas on writing for your health:
1. Find a time and place where you can write undisturbed for 15 minutes. (You can write longhand or type—up to you). Your best bet may be early morning or late at night.
2. Pick something to write about. Choose something that:
- You keep worrying about
- You keep dreaming about
- Is affecting your life in an unhealthy way
- You have been avoiding for days, weeks, even years
3. Let go and explore. Start writing! Try to keep your pen on the page (don’t overthink it). You may discover connections between the topic and your childhood, your relationships with family, with people you love, and so on. Ask yourself, how is this experience related to who you are and who you’d like to become? Try not to sensor yourself. Just write.
…A Word of Warning
Great—so is it recommended for everyone? Not so fast, says Psychcentral, who warns that people vary in their ability to cope with trauma. Forcing someone (or yourself) to write about an event before she’s ready can make things worse. It’s best done in the context of accessible support.
However, they say, when performed with limits on time and subject matter by a person who’s capable of doing the exercise, “the method is cheap, allows the trauma to be confronted at a suitable (self-directed) speed, lets personal meanings and solutions be derived, and may be undertaken by people who would not be likely to enter therapy.”
The University of Texas guidelines also issue this warning:
“Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.”