Writing your way to better health
This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Kate Reilly and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on October 5, 2012.
Try to recall the last time you were angry, depressed, or anxious. What did you want to do with those feelings? There is a good chance you had an urge to text your best friend, post a Facebook status update, or write in your journal. We often want to get things off our chest and prevent them from festering inside of us. If we pick the right outlet, disclosing our emotions can help us feel better in the moment. Furthermore, there’s evidence that emotional disclosure through writing can improve mental and physical health outcomes months and even years later.
Psychologist James Pennebaker is well-known for his work on expressive writing and has conducted an impressive program of research outlining the benefits that emotional disclosure can have. They include lower self-reported distress and depression, improved immune functioning, fewer doctor’s office visits, and even increases in GPAs. Perhaps most relevant to today’s economic situation, in a study of recently-unemployed individuals, people who wrote about their emotions regarding their job loss got new jobs faster than those who wrote about non-emotional events or did not write at all!
What exactly is expressive writing?
The expressive writing technique that Pennebaker uses in his research is actually quite simple and a lot like keeping a diary. In much of the work, participants are asked to write for 15 to 30 minutes for 3 to 5 consecutive days. In some studies, participants are asked to write about specific traumas or emotionally significant events, such as September 11th or losing one’s job. In others, participants choose their own “extremely important issue” about which to write. They are encouraged to let their thoughts flow, not hold anything back, and to thoroughly explore their emotions. In experimental work on the writing procedure, some participants are randomly assigned to engage in the above exercise. Their outcomes are then compared to those of participants instructed to write about superficial, less meaningful topics or to those of participants who did not write at all.
The writing procedure itself tends to have a calming effect on people. Participants exhibit physiological responses similar to people who are trying to relax, such as decreased heart rate and lower systolic blood pressure. Some research showed that one month after expressive writing, blood pressure levels for people who engaged in expressive writing were still lower than they had been at baseline. These changes are not related to writing in general, as they do not occur when people write only about superficial topics. There seems to be something special about the process of putting thoughts about intense emotional experiences into words and writing them down.
What is it about writing that leads to health benefits?
Though many causal mechanisms have been proposed, here I’ll focus on two: cognitive changes and social changes. To examine cognitive changes during expressive writing, Pennebaker and his colleagues have closely analyzed the texts people write. They have designed a computer program that counts certain types of words, such as positive emotion words and causal words. This program allows the researchers to examine different components of the texts and see which parts are most associated with health improvements. (If you’re interested in some other interesting uses of this program, see Juli’s post here.)
These analyses point to certain cognitive changes that might underlie the path from expressive writing to improved health. For example, in one study, the more people increased their use of causal words (e.g.,because, effect, and reason) and insight words (e.g., understand andrealize) over the course of the writing sessions, the better their later health. This finding suggests that the process of making sense out of life events and creating a coherent narrative with causal relationships is particularly useful for well-being. In addition, it demonstrates that changes in thinking are important. It was the trend of using more causal and insight words over time that was associated with better health, not a higher average of those words across the writing sessions.
Writing can also lead to changes in people’s social lives. In a study where participants wore recording devices in their everyday lives, researchers found that people talked more to others after expressive writing. Because writing has also been linked to increases in working memory, it is possible that expressive writing helps people pay better attention to their friends’ needs or recognize opportunities for more relationships. Enhanced social support and connection may then facilitate the better health outcomes observed.
For more specific guidelines about the expressive writing technique, visit Pennebaker’s website here.
Are you somebody who likes to write during emotionally troubling times? Why do you think expressive writing has so many documented benefits? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science (8), 162-166 DOI:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00403.x
Pennebaker, J.W., & Chung, C.K. (2011). Expressive writing and its links to mental and physical health. Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology, 417-437.