Writing to Heal

Did You Know…writing to heal can relieve stress… improve your immune system… and even save your life?

For more than two decades, Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, has studied how expressive writing can help people heal.  Pennebaker has found that just four days of writing using his technique can have a tangible effect on a person’s mental well-being and physical health.

One woman, a graduate student, came to Pennebaker after losing her husband in an accident.  She initially related that her fellow students had praised her resilience for how smoothly she continued on after his death, but after practicing Pennebaker’s technique, the woman stopped pursuing her degree and moved back to her hometown.  Writing about her loss led her to realize she had been putting all her energy into pretending she was okay instead of focusing on her true needs.  She told Pennebaker those four days of writing saved her life.

Relieve Stress by Reliving It—On the Page, That Is 

Amazing new research now offers hard evidence on how writing heals our physical bodies.  A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed physical benefits for patients who wrote about the most stressful event of their lives.  For the study, all participants spent 20 minutes writing on three consecutive days.

Some of the participants wrote about the most stressful event of their lives, while the others wrote about their daily plans.  Four months later, clinical evaluations found that the patients in the stressful-writing group had improved more and deteriorated less than those in the emotionally neutral group.

Scientists have yet to determine exactly how and why writing benefits the immune system, but the curative mechanism seems to be the relief of the stress.  The way people interpret their experiences crucially impacts the writing’s effectiveness.  Simply pouring out emotion, to a sympathetic listener or a blank page, will not adequately relieve stress.  To use writing to heal, you must tap into your emotions, understand them, and learn from them.

Writing Your Own Life Story 

Just as therapy cannot help someone who simply describes the same problem over and over in the same way, writing cannot help you heal unless it changes your perspective.  Shifts in perspective can been seen in the language a person uses, according to Pennebaker.  He and his colleagues use a text analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to track the types of words participants use in their writing.  When someone switches pronouns, from “I” to “she,” or “they,” this displays the ability to view an experience in a new way.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect is that your writing is truly for yourself, and no one else. Even if you immediately destroy what you have written, you can experience immense benefits.  What matters is that you translated the experience into words.  In doing so, you made yourself the creator of your own life story.