Scientific studies demonstrate that writing is an effective tool for healing physical and emotional trauma
University of Texas at Austin psychologist James Pennebaker* has been studying the therapeutic effects of writing since the mid-eighties. In study after study, Pennebaker has demonstrated that expressive writing – in which the writer records their thoughts and emotions surrounding a circumstance – is an effective tool for healing both physical and emotional trauma.
In his 2014 book, Expressive Writing: Words that heal, Pennebaker details his studies and others like them that demonstrate the far-reaching power of writing as a tool to achieve everything from stress and pain reduction to immunity boosting, from increased cognitive function to lowered blood pressure.
How it all began
In his book, Pennebaker explains that it all began in a series of studies in the 80s in which he asked people to write for 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days either about a traumatic experience or a superficial event. To his surprise, he discovered that those who wrote about traumas made 43 % fewer doctor visits in the following three months and reported that their writing changed their lives.
Since this time, at least 300 studies about the benefits of expressive writing have been published, Pennebaker writes. “As the number of studies increased, it became clear that writing was far more powerful than anyone dreamed.”
Pennebaker explains that research demonstrates that expressive writing is associated with a wider range of health benefits, including:
- general enhancement of immune function and emotion regulation
- improvement in overall wellbeing and cognitive functioning
- increased sense of happiness and decreased negativity
- decrease in depression, rumination and general anxiety
- modest reductions in resting blood pressure levels in relatively healthy adults, and lowering of the high liver enzyme levels often associated with excessive drinking
- up to four months’ benefits when indicators of stress such as systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate variability and skin conductance were measured
- positive effect on sleep habits, work efficiency and connections to others
- improvements in lung function and joint mobility in people with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis
- higher white blood cell counts in people with AIDS
- a significant improvement in disease severity in patients with irritable bowel syndrome
- significant benefits in physical health, reduction in pain and physical symptoms and improved sleep and daytime function in cancer patients
- reduced fatigue that was maintained for three months in arthritis and lupus patients
- generally: lower blood pressure and heart rates immediately after writing about emotional topics
Other studies showed that writing may have positive behavioural effects. In a study on social-life quality, subjects wore small tape recorders in the days before and after writing. “Overall, people who wrote about traumatic experiences talked more with other people, laughed more easily and often, and used more positive emotion words in the weeks afterwards. Writing seemed to make people more socially comfortable – better listeners, talkers, indeed better friends and partners.”
A number of studies demonstrated that students make higher grades in the semester after a writing study. Pennbaker suggests that expressive writing may boosts people’s working memory and ability to think about complex tasks.
In a study of men who were laid off of their jobs, expressive writing seemed like it might be a means to alleviate anger and improve possibilities for employment. In the study, angry, hostile middle-aged men laid off after 15 years of work were asked to write either about their deepest emotions about losing their jobs or about how they used their time. “Eight months after writing, 52% of the emotional writing group had new jobs compared with only 20% of the time management participants.”
Immediate versus long-term effects
Pennebaker stresses the importance of distinguishing between the immediate and long-term effects of expressive writing. People can experience short-term mood changes right after writing: “Emotional writing can be likened to seeing a sad movie – afterward you feel sadder but wiser.” He says it’s important to give yourself time to reflect.
However, long-term studies show sustained benefits: “Across multiple studies, people who engage in emotional writing report feeling happier and less negative than they felt before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.”
Pennebaker notes that some researchers believe the benefits of expressive writing might be due to habituation – an increased exposure to the trauma that can reduce people’s reaction over time. He writes that other theories explain the benefits occur through “identifying, labeling, and integrating negative emotions into the broader context of one’s life”.
*James Pennebaker is a social psychologist, Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.