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Q: Can writing improve your health?

There is a form of writing which has been shown to have remarkable effects on research subjects’ well-being, social functioning, and cognitive abilities. The best-known of the scientists who study ‘expressive writing’ is James W. Pennebaker, chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas. Pennebaker and several others around the world have found that a short series brief exercises of this particular form of writing about emotional upheavals can improve physical and mental health.

An early study

In his accessible book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (free chapter here) Pennebaker describes an early experiment. Fifty students were asked to write for 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Half were to write about superficial matters; the other half about a traumatic event. Blood was drawn the day before writing commenced, after the final session, and six weeks later. Results. 1. Compared to the superficial writers, the students who wrote about trauma reported feeling sadder and more upset after each day’s writing. 2. Those who wrote about trauma had improved immune function (T-lymphocytes). This was highest the last writing session, but persisted for six weeks. 3. The number of visits to the health centre dropped among those who wrote about trauma. (See below for other effects found in subsequent studies.)

This is likely to seem to be a claim of magic, so let’s go back a step. “Having any type of traumatic experience is associated with elevated illness rates; having any trauma and not talking about it further elevates the risk.” Many readers of Lovefraud have testified to this; they name multiple instances of physical and mental ailments which they date to their stressful and traumatic relationships with psychopaths. And they describe multiple ways of working through it all including participating in internet sites like this one. If non-expression is bad for one, expression might conceivably be good – but exactly what kind of expression matters enormously.

The method

Writing about emotional upheavals in our lives can improve physical and mental health. Although the scientific research surrounding the value of expressive writing is still in the early phases, there are some approaches to writing that have been found to be helpful. Keep in mind that there are probably a thousand ways to write that may be beneficial to you. Think of these as rough guidelines rather than Truth. Indeed, in your own writing, experiment on your own and see what works best.

Getting Ready to Write
Find a time and place where you won?t be disturbed. Ideally, pick a time at the end of your workday or before you go to bed.”¨”¨Promise yourself that you will write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least 3 or 4 consecutive days.”¨”¨Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written.”¨”¨You can write longhand or you can type on a computer. If you are unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder.”¨”¨You can write about the same thing on all 3-4 days of writing or you can write about something different each day. It is entirely up to you.”¨”¨

What to Write About
Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much.
Something that you are dreaming about.
Something that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way.
Something that you have been avoiding for days, weeks, or years.

Researchers have found which aspects of this writing are vital and which can be varied – and by how much.

  • ‘Writing’ – It turns out that writing with pen and paper, typing on a keyboard, and even ‘writing’ without marking the page (e.g. with the nib retracted) each work fine. (Indeed, female participants do better with the latter method in that they feel freer to use curse words). Even speaking (in this free-form way) into a dictaphone while in bed helped participants to sleep. Importantly, thinking about the trauma showed none of the benefits – some form of expression is crucial.
  • Free expression – While the mechanics of the expression can vary, the form of the expression should not. The writing must be ‘free’ – continuous, unencumbered, uncensored. It is helpful to write with the intention of destroying the pages afterwards – if no-one, not even oneself is to read them one may feel more able to let go.
  • Frequency – Once a day on three consecutive days was as effective as once an hour for three consecutive hours all on one day. The crucial factors are the regularity (no more than 24 hr gaps) and a frequency of no less than three and no more than four sessions.
  • Duration – Writing sessions of not shorter than 15 minutes and not longer than 20 minutes work fine.

Some important Don’ts

  • Don’t do too soon after a trauma – It is very important to let one’s normal adaptive mechanisms (including rumination and obsessing) do their healing work. In other words, it is completely normal and even necessary to struggle somewhat after experiencing trauma or emotional upheaval. Only if the symptoms persist after 3-6 months might something like expressive writing be called for.
  • Don’t do for more than four days – this particular form of writing, says Pennebaker, shouldn’t be used in an ongoing fashion. It takes one down emotionally at first – one’s system must be given a chance to pick up again.
  • Don’t do if it seems too much to tackle – Expressive writing is meant to help not hurt.
  • “Despite the large number of promising studies, expressive writing is not a panacea.” — Pennebaker and Chung
  • Disclaimer – You will appreciate that I am not in a position to give psychological or medical advice in this forum. This post is not a recommendation but rather food for thought. If it makes sense to you, please discuss it with a mental health professional.

Write unhappy, think happy

The magazine Scientific American Mind summarises the field of expressive writing. It refers to a study which tested three forms of retelling an experience: telling it or writing it proved therapeutic, merely thinking about it, though, “created chaos: events, images and emotions became intertwined, leading people to relive the experience – with the danger of becoming lost in the misery all over again.” (I have referred to this phenomenon as rumination.)

It is noteworthy that ruminating about happy or good things makes one happier (ruminating about unpleasant things, as we’ve seen, is bad for one); conversely, writing about happy things somewhat spoils them (while writing about unhappy things is therapeutic). Note: this refers only to free-form writing.

Any comments? I’d love to hear them.


Some other research findings

Here are some illustrative points from a 2007 review of the field by Pennebaker and Chung:

  • significant drops in physician visits among relatively healthy samples
  • beneficial influence on immune function in beneficial ways, including t-helper cell growth (using a blastogenesis procedure with the mitogen PHA), antibody response to Epstein-Barr virus, and antibody response to hepatitis B vaccinations
  • skin conductance levels are significantly lower during the trauma disclosures
  • systolic blood pressure and heart rate drops to levels below baseline following the disclosure of traumatic topics but not superficial ones

In short, when individuals talk or write about deeply personal topics, their immediate biological responses are congruent with those seen among people attempting to relax. McGuire, Greenberg, and Gevirtz (2005) have shown that these effects can carry over to the longterm in participants with elevated blood pressure. One month after writing, those who participated in the emotional disclosure condition exhibited lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure (DBP) than before writing. Four months after writing, DBP remained lower than baseline levels.

  • attitude, stereotyping, creativity, working memory, motivation, life satisfaction, and school performance all changed for the better
  • students who write about emotional topics evidence improvements in grades in the months following the study
  • senior professionals who have been laid off from their jobs get new jobs more quickly after writing
  • university staff members who write about emotional topics are subsequently absent from their work at lower rates than controls
  • self reports also suggest that writing about upsetting experiences, although painful in the
    days of writing, produces long-term improvements in mood and indicators of well-being
    compared to controls

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29 Comments on "Q: Can writing improve your health?"

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Beverly, the “you don’t know me at all” comment is very telling with Ns and Ps.

You are right, the “red flags” are there, but I discounted them. I didn’t want to believe them when I dated the P, or with my son a P as well–

Keeping “notes” on the uncomfortable things in the relationship may also help a person to see the “pattern” whereas we tend to “forget” some of the things that make us uncomfortable or strange feeling.

I didn’t keep notes with my son, but was able to go back and read and reread some of the letters he wrote to me, and they were ALL there as well…and when in person he “dropped his mask” and told me “you wouldn’t like me so well if you knew the truth about my crime, it was much more horrible than even the cops knew” (he was trying to frighten me I think because he was frustrated that I was no longer allowing him to manipulate me.) Later I read in a letter he wrote to someone else BRAGGING about how “horrible his crime was” so I KNEW then, the red flags had been waving and I knew that I had been ignoring them. I instituted NC right then—but it was so difficult because I watned to “tell him off” in a letter. I wrote it 100 times, but tore the all up, I never mailed it.

Our family is NC now for 8 months with him. If there was a way to punish him, this is it. He is driven “crazy” with not being able to manipulate and control the family and no contact, and nothing he does or says gets a response of any kind. I guess if there is ever a punishment for a P it is NC. Which is sort of nice I guess in a perverse way, it punishes them by taking away their CONTROL and makes us strong.

Beverly — that’s AMAZING to view and digest in one sitting, isn’t it? I did the same thing – journaling every day on the weird, mean things he would say, the lies that wouldn’t add up, comments about people being “replaceable” (huh??? that was near the last straw to me) and the withholding: sex, affection…opinion. Who, when they make a comment and are asked to elaborate on that comment, explain it – not asked threateningly, but nicely, for advice – refuses to answer? Won’t say they’re sorry ever, or says it in a fake condescending abrupt way (like they are the opposite of sorry)? Who keeps mentioning other women and changes the goal posts of your relationship?

An S’Path. An S’Path does all of the above we’ve experienced…and MORE, if you let them.

I’m…stunned. All over again.

Thank you so much for posting your experiences. Seeing them and feeling like someone else was reading my own thoughts is just further confirmation. I’m CONVINCED we would not have noticed these things so overtly, because they happen over time and ambiently, slowly, stealthily, had we not been writing it down and keeping a record of it.

I even wrote myself a note which said ‘if he tries to come back after the next break up – remember that he is punishing-deceiving, manipulative, rigid, unforgiving etc etc. Guess what, I over rode my own note to myself and I went onto take the final and worst part of the relationship.

A few months prior to ending it, a friend told me she had seen him leaving a pub with a girl. I wrote him a letter, he sent me abusive texts denying it, I went to see him in anger, he refused to talk to me so I pushed him over and he threw me out. Six weeks later, he wooed me back and everything was good. But little did I know that he had got me back to punish me and teach me a lesson for pushing him over. I think by then he had realised that I wasnt a ‘push over’ and in his mind he had written me off, so had nothing towards me.

I also started keeping a diary of his patterns, what nights he cancelled, what his excuses were, so that I could be sure of my facts when questioning him and because i was checking up on him. He lived at the top of my road for 4 months and then moved out of the area, presumably because then I couldnt keep an eye on him.

Beverly , not to keep singling you out but our experiences are just so similar sometimes, it’s eerie to me. Also, we seem somewhat similar as people. Definitely “too nice” in many ways. What you said here:

“But little did I know that he had got me back to punish me and teach me a lesson for pushing him over.”

Mine did the same thing! We got back together for a very brief period in November/December of last year. Of course, he did not want to talk about things at all, but superficially everything was ok…for a few weeks. Next meeting he attacked me for every comment not related to either the poker game on the tv at the bar (I’d said we should call it an early night because I was tired but he had this evil glint in his eye and said, “Oh, the night’s young….I had a weird feeling at that moment).

Finally, he took great glee with a big smile in saying over and over, “But I don’t love you….I don’t…I don’t….” and then pretended I wasn’t even in his apartment. We’d been drinking and I couldn’t drive home, but we hadn’t really been fighting. I did cry when he said he didn’t love me like that. It was like some big “reveal moment” for him….TADA, Sucker! Look what I got you to believe for a year!”

It’s really ok that he didn’t love me. What wasn’t ok was the joy he took in inflicting pain on me through this disclosure. The smile on his face, more like a sneer. Pretending I wasn’t there.

He’d done smaller versions of this in the past. Looking back, I have no idea how I stayed and so, very little trust that I’m at the place in life where intuition would kick-in enough to get me out of a similar situation very early on. It’s also quite painful to even type this.

He really delighted in hurting me, even as far back as 12 years ago when we met. And I never understood why until 2007, finding these N and P sites. It just seemed unfathomable that anyone could take pleasure out of hurting someone they were intimate with…it just wouldn’t compute in my brain. It wouldn’t even register. Think I blocked it out or dissociated from it the times he’d been like that in the past, the “accidental” shoving doors in my face, etc.

Wow. Is it a pathetic feeling to recount this. Part of me reading it while typing is saying “Hey, — why didn’t you RUN immediately?”

The short answer is that I loved him. Your love in your posts is apparent, too, even though we both know they are poison. My love for him has really faded, but the horror of what he did seems to keep growing, as I remember little by little.

I wrote down my nightmares for a long time and then began writing before I went to sleep. This article reminded me that this writing helped me significantly. I am going to dig out one of my notebooks and begin writing again tonight. I am continuing to use the Jon Kabat-Zinn Mindfulness CDs when I wake up and it also makes a difference. Little things like this can make a big difference and help me appreciate who I am as well as have empathy and love for others going through so many things.

Writing on the Lovefraud blog really helps me get my feelings out.For some reason,I have a hard time doing this on my own.Probably has something to do with having to keep my feelings to myself so so very long that now I have trouble expressing them unless prompted.

Beverly and LilOrphan sound so much like me!

After 3 appointments, my therapist told me to write to him between appointments. That was 3 years ago, November. I still write to him all the time. Does he read them? Many of them, yes. He even writes back and talks about them in our sessions.

He recommended that I find a more apropos board for me to become active on, as opposed to the divorce board I was following.

I never had a diary, never kept a journal during my mom’s handicap. It would have put a lot of things in perspective.

Seeing thoughts ‘on paper’ helps me see things in an orderly fashion. I need order in my life. I only wish I wrote years and years ago.

I found the intensity of my nightmares went down when I wrote about them. They are intensifying again and I am hopeful I can get them managed down by writing them down. It is such a good way to release things out of our hearts and brains.

Lost: Do you see your spath treating you differently…applying himself to the therapy? I am very curious about that. I would never be able to show the spath what I wrote and feel emotionally safe and I wonder what your therapist is doing to make him learn how to work at this without it negatively affecting you.

I wrote for years about my feelings concerning the pain and heartache over my only child. It helped some but what helped most was turning it all over to the Lord and letting it go. I stopped looking at his myspace (at that time myspace was the big thing and that is how I discovered his lies, dual life, etc)and his facebook (as well as other family members and friends who condoned his lifestyle). For the last several years, I have had intense pain in my heart, abnormal racing and fluttering,it would wake me up at night, baffling the doctors. I can honestly say I know what a broken heart feels like. When I stopped the torture of reading the lies, manipulation, deception, etc.(which I had no control over nor could convince anyone of what he is)and released it all, my heart pain immediately stopped. I do not have to continue to torture myself with knowing every detail nor remind myself that my family and friends have not supported us but betrayed us in siding with him.

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