Writing for Health
I hate to admit it but it’s true: I’m terrible at keeping a journal. I probably have half a dozen notebooks lying around, each one with no more than 20 entries before I got caught up in other things, made excuses, didn’t have the time, or just plain forgot. Reading them when I stumble upon them is always interesting and sometimes helpful. Memories are seldom totally accurate. Time has a way of changing perspective. But, nonetheless, I’ve never found a way to manage my time and my life so that I could make a daily entry into a diary or blog.
But new research is making me think about trying again. It seems that keeping a journal has benefits besides preserving baby’s first word, recording my pleasure during a vacation or providing a place to put my strong feelings about what so and so did and what I wish I’d said. Writing about my feelings can actually improve my health.
James Pennebaker, PhD at the University of Texas and Joshua Smyth, PhD at Syracuse University have done studies that show that writing about our feelings can boost the immune systems of people suffering from asthma, arthritis and even HIV/AIDS. For those of us who always seem to have more tasks than hours every day, it is heartening to note that they have found that even 15 to 20 minutes a day of reflective writing is all it takes.
Pannebaker divided 37 HIV/AIDS patients into two groups. One group was asked to write about their negative life experiences. The other group was instructed to simply write about their daily schedules. All of the participants wrote for only four sessions of 30 minutes each. The research team found that those who wrote about their experiences showed an increase in the functioning of their immune system. Unfortunately, the elevated immune function didn’t hold beyond three months but the fact that simply writing could affect it at all is remarkable.
Pennebaker has suggested that writing about their distress helped the patients reduce their anxiety and helped them cope. I wonder what would happen if people made writing a daily habit.
Smyth’s team studied 107 people with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. He asked half the group to write for 20 minutes a day for three days about the most stressful event they could remember. The control group was asked to write about their daily plans. Four months later, 70 people in the group that wrote about their stress showed improvement. Only 37 of the control group improved.
Other researchers have found that writing about our feelings is more beneficial when it is directed in positive ways. Writing pages of negative comments and angry and depressed feelings can lead to feeling more angry and depressed. Focusing on only the pain of a traumatic experience can reopen an old emotional wound or increase feelings of helplessness or vulnerability. Susan Lutgendorf, PhD at the University of Iowa found that it’s important for writers to focus on how they can find meaning in their pain to benefit from the journaling. Similarly, Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania stresses the importance of finding meaning in life’s challenging events if we are to grow and be happy.
Writing out our feelings and our insights about the difficult events in our lives can have long-term as well as short-term effects. Participants in studies, especially those who continued to write regularly, have reported fewer visits to doctors and hospitals, reduced blood pressure, improved mood, reduced depression, reduced pain and improvement of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.