Thursday, June 16, 2011

Writing Makes You Feel Better: Counting the Ways

“People write in journals because it makes them feel better,” claims neuro-science researcher Matthew Lieberman. This conclusion comes from personal observation, not specifically from his research, but other research does back him up. The original research documenting specific health benefits of expressive writing was conducted in 1986 by James Pennebaker and his associate Sandra Beall. Pennebaker continued this line of research and his name is inextricably linked with the field of expressive writing research. That original research has been expanded and replicated over two hundred times in the ensuing twenty-five years. Studies by researchers around the world with dozens of diverse types of subjects lend solid credibility to findings.

The list below summarizes benefits that have been documented. Obviously not every person experiences every benefit, and they’ll be stronger for some than others, but knowing the list may help you further appreciate the power of expressive writing.

Physical benefits:

Lower blood pressure and heart rate. Even a few points or beats can make a difference.

Better immune system functioning. Dozens of studies have shown that people who did a standard writing exercise had fewer infections over the next few months than control groups and some have demonstrated increases in T-cell responses as long as six weeks after the writing exercise.

Improved lung and liver function. Many studies have shown improvement of asthma symptoms as a result of writing about traumatic experiences.

Fewer doctor visits. Some studies stipulate that there are fewer stress-related doctor visits. Anything that reduces stress should obviously improve health, and expressive writing clearly reduces stress for many people. But that is probably not the whole story. Many studies show decreased doctor visits that may have nothing to do with stress-related factors.

Pain Reduction. Studies of post-surgical patients have shown reduced demand for pain meds, and decreased pain in arthritis, lupus and cancer patients.

Better Sleep. Several studies have shown that expressive writing can lead to better sleep for insomnia caused by a number of conditions.

There is no guarantee that any form of writing will keep you from catching a cold this winter, let you throw out your blood pressure meds, or sleep like a baby every night, but you don’t have much to lose by trying it. You can find guidelines for using Pennebaker’s writing process in an overview article.

Emotional Benefits

Many emotional benefits have been documented in studies connected with research following the Pennebaker model, but these benefits have also been noted in anecdotal reports written by psychologists, psychotherapists, and writing teachers as well as their clients and students. An increasing number of psychotherapists are incorporating journaling into their practices, and the Center for Journal Therapy offers certification programs as well as classes and guidelines for individuals.

Documented emotional health benefits include:

  •     Increased happiness
  •     Enhanced feeling of well-being
  •     Less worry and anxiety
  •     More self-confidence
  •     Smoother relationships
  •     Better problem-solving

There is no doubt that writing can improve health, but scientific evidence really doesn’t add much to the intuitive wisdom many people share with Matthew Lieberman: writing makes us feel better, plain and simple.

Write now: pull out your journal or blank paper and do some freewriting about something puzzling or distressing. Write longer if you feel like it, or follow Pennebaker’s process and write about it for fifteen to twenty minutes for three or four days.

Photo credit: Lin Fuchshuber

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