Writing and Healing, and Dr. James Pennebaker’s Studies
In this series, I’m celebrating the research that started being publicized in the late 1990s about how writing helps to heal the body and the mind, and celebrating my books on this subject. One of them is a decade old! And my recent book, The Power of Memoir just passed its first birthday. Join me in learning more about this powerful means of using words to create new worlds.
Writing your true story is healing! Though we know this intuitively, research over the last decade has proven it to be true. In this series of articles we will investigate the ways that writing helps to heal, and connect different ways of writing with layers and levels of healing. “Healing” can also be seen as “Getting a new perspective, finding a new point of view, letting go of the past, forgiveness and compassion.”
Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, is one of the most well known researchers on the topic, and in 2000 I asked him about the research he was doing during a visit in Austin, Texas. We sat across from each other in the student cafeteria. He brushed back his red hair from his face, talking and smiling about his work.
What he called “expressive writing,” writing that integrates your emotions and insights with memories of events that occurred in your past, improves the immune system and has a positive effect on diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, and asthma, among others, and he forwarded me to the site of some of his articles.
We know that self-disclosure and confession have long played a role in relieving stress. People sometimes resist confession, but for many the ancient church sacrament helps to unburden shame and guilt, allowing them to face forward with new resolve, relieved and invigorated.
In the confessional, we speak the unspeakable. Confessional words can pierce the darkness, opening our hearts to hope and forgiveness. Through confession and unburdening, forgiveness can begin, for ourselves and others.
Psychotherapy has been called the modern day confessional. Like a priest in the darkened confessional, Freud positioned himself in the shadows of a dimly lit room—a sacred, private space in which clients could reveal hidden truths. His treatment rule was that they were to speak freely about whatever arose in their minds. This was a revolutionary, even dangerous, idea in Victorian times, when repression and suppression of thoughts and desires were the order of the day. In therapy, as in the church confessional, deep feelings, worries, and the secrets of the soul could finally be formed into words.
During the 1990s, Dr. Pennebaker began to wonder if writing would offer the same relief as spoken disclosure. For a decade, he and his colleagues had been investigating the therapeutic benefit of writing in various settings and with a large range of populations, including prisoners and crime victims, arthritis and chronic-pain sufferers, new mothers, and people with various physical illnesses, across different social classes and demographics.
During one such experiment, members of the control group were instructed to write lists or plans for the day, while the expressive writing group received the following directions:
For the next four days, I would like you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different traumas each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.
Both groups wrote for fifteen minutes on each of the four days of the study.
Despite Dr. Pennebaker’s background as a psychologist, the intensity and depth of the trauma expressed in the subjects’ stories surprised and moved him profoundly. Students wrote about tragic and traumatic events, such as depression, rape, suicide attempts, child sexual and physical abuse, drug use, and family violence. They often wrote of powerful emotions associated with these stories and many cried, yet almost all of them were willing to participate in the study again.
The researchers found that it is indeed healing to translate our experiences into words, to put events and feelings into perspective using written language.
In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker discusses how writing about emotional events relieves stress and promotes a more complete understanding of events. He concludes that simple catharsis, the explosive release of emotions, is not enough. Feelings, thoughts, and a new comprehension need to be integrated in our minds with memories of the events that occurred in order to create a new perspective. Pennebaker compares the effects of writing to psychotherapy, where emotional disclosure and the release of inhibition are part of the healing process, along with the ability to integrate new insights into current behavior and beliefs.
As far back as Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) psychologists have suggested that repression and suppression of emotion contribute to stress and emotional and physical imbalance. In a primitive fight-or-flight system, powerful chemicals surge through the body to protect an organism against a perceived threat. When the threat has passed, the body retains the pattern of tension and vigilance, especially if there was ongoing trauma. When stress is released, the immune system responds in a positive direction, toward balance and ultimate health.
In 1999, an article by Joshua Smyth et al. in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” about the effects of expressive writing on arthritis and asthma sufferers made a rousing splash in the writing and psychological communities.
In their 2002 book The Writing Cure, Smyth and Stephen Lepore present more recent studies showing that while writing about trauma and negative emotions causes emotional pain and distress for a short period, both mood and physical health improve. Furthermore, writing about positive emotions and a positive future also lead to improvements in physical as well as emotional health.
The research also showed that our personalities affect these benefits. If a person tends to withhold emotions, writing about negative experiences will likely have a positive effect on that person’s health. If a person generally focuses on negative feelings, writing about a positive experience or a happier life event may have a beneficial effect. Therefore, there is no single “right” way to use writing as a healing tool.
Freewrite: A freewrite means to write freely without stopping or correcting your work. To let your hand sweep across the page, or your fingers to rush across the keys. Do not delete or correct. Save and move to the next writing idea.
When writing the invitation, freewrite and enjoy!
1. List five reasons you want to write stories about your life.
2. What kinds of stories do you like to read, and why?
5. Describe the town, city, landscape you grew up in. Include buildings, weather–all your favorite things about this place. Try to feel this place again as you write. Use descriptions and sensual details.
6. Think about and write about how the place where you grew up shape you into the person you are today?
7. Eavesdropping as a child—did you do that? What interesting stories did you hear? Write some of these stories.
You can read more about this amazing research in my second book on the power of writing to heal: The Power of Memoir–How To Write Your Healing Story.