Here’s a post on why writing and sharing will change your life.
In 1988 James Pennebaker ran a now classic experiment that still today has a massive impact in the psychological community, unfortunately his findings havn’t reached the broader public. In his first study James asked 50 students to write 15 minutes a day on the most traumatic experiences from their lives, for four days in a row. That’s it. And those few minutes of writing later proved to change the participants lives. After they where less anxious, had significantly better immune system functioning and where less depressed. And lots of these effects lasted for more than 2 years. Pretty cool for 60 minutes.
Unstructured and expressive writing on emotional or even traumatic events have now in nearly 200 studies been proven to be a powerful intervention for a multitude of important psychological measures. Decreasing stress and depressive symptoms for even depressed patients as well as strengthening academic retention for students and even improving overall mood.
Sounds like magic doesn’t it? What Pennebaker found was that the driving factor of these effects wasn’t just the act of writing; it was that they where making sense of chaos. Pennebaker showed that closing down or inhibiting thoughts and feelings about traumatic events requires effort and serves as a long term stressor on the body. It can aslo lead to obsessive thinking, avoidance or ruminating about the event since it hasn’t been processed. These negative coping strategies together are what lead to longer-term disease.
Testing this theory Pennebaker, with his background in linguistics, analysed the type of words people used and found something astonishing. The more participants had used causal words like “because”, “led to”, “effect” and insight words like “think”, “know”, “understand” the bigger the positive effect. By turning towards and going through what we want to avoid, instead of running from it, we seem to create meaning and a deeper understanding of ourselves. By writing and holding negative emotions we actually integrate fear, shame and regret instead of letting them steer our behaviour.
It’s not just writing.
Expressing emotions and making sense out of chaos doesn’t have to be in writing, similar benefits have been found just from sharing your stories to someone who’s listening. Pennebaker later followed up his research in measuring 60 holocaust survivors and had independent people assess if the survivors disclosed their inner worlds or not. A year later they found that who shared more where significantly healthier.
Why this matters.
The science shows that we humans seem to be essentially built to share and express our inner worlds, both in words and with others. This inner process of making sense of our experience by putting words on it and stringing the words together into something not only meaningful but also healing. Shining a conscious light on traumatising darkness, if you will.
If the act of expressing our inner worlds has a such large effect on our psychological and physiological well-being - combined with the investment of time being so small - I believe we have a responsibility to make these tools accessible to everyone who need’s them.
Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 56, pp. 239-245.
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. New York: Guilford Press.
Krpan, Katherine, et. al. (2013). “An everyday activity as a treatment for depression:The benefits of expressive writing for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder”. Journal of Affective Disroders. 150. doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2013.05.065