I recently wrote about bibliotherapy. Expressive writing is one of the most well-studied examples of bibliotherapy. It seems incredible, but writing for 20 minutes a night, for four days in a row, can improve things from your GPA to how often you go to the doctor. Since the claims are grand, this post will have a lot of scientific citations. I want to stay rooted in the rational, because this research can get me excited and unhinged.
Almost all of us have suffered trauma in our lives. One of my favorite psychologists, Stanislav Grof, would argue all of us experience trauma at birth. But setting that aside for the moment, most of us incur a few soul scars as we navigate this life. These soul scars, if they happen before the age of 17, significantly correlate with adult illness. If you have had traumatic experiences in your early life, you tend to get sick easier and go to the doctor more. (Stockdale 2011; Brown et al. 2010; Dube et al. 2009; Fellitti 2009).
What is even more startling to the material dualist is; those who keep their trauma a secret go to the doctor even more than those who share their trauma. (Pennebaker & Susman 1988.) So here we have 5 studies finding a scientifically significant correlation between keeping a secret and physical health. This will seem obvious to more intuitive readers, but what this is demonstrating, or appears to be, is there is a real link between the mind and the body.
The expressive writing technique was created by Pennebaker in the light of this mind-body connection. His technique has been shown to reduce doctor visits by HALF for those who had the traumatic childhood event and kept it a secret (Pennebaker & Susman 1988.) Since then, over 300 studies have been done on expressive writing.
Benefits Concluded from 300+ Studies
- Improved immune function (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glasser & Glasser 1988)
- Improved lung function in asthmatics and limb mobility in rheumatoid arthritis patients (Smyth & Arigo 2009; Smyth Stone & Hurewitz, et al. 1999.)
- Increased white blood cell production in cancer patients (Petrie et al. 2004)
- Reduce Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms (Halpert, Rybin, & Doros 2010)
- Improved cancer patient’s sleep (Henry et al. 2010; Low et al. 2010; De Moor et al. 2002; Rosenberg et al. 2002.)
- Reduces blood pressure, heart rate, facial muscular tension, and hand skin conductance (Pennebaker, Hughes, & O’Heeron 1987)
- Decrease depressive symptoms (Lepore 1997.)
- Improve GPA (Lumley & Provenzano 2003; Cameron & Nicholls 1998; Pennebaker, Colder, & Sharp 1990).
- Improved rate of being hired if unemployed (Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker 1994.)
Mechanism of Action
The fascinating part here is we don’t really know how these healing effects are happening. The hypothesis that seems to be leading the way is that when we write, we have to organize our thoughts, and when we organize our thoughts, we tend to fit them into a story structure, and this seems to “consolidate” the memory into the story of our life. When we refuse to think about a trauma, it remains in our consciousness somewhere, unassimilated. It uses up our cognitive resources and may trigger our stress response.
“The author’s ability to construct a coherent story around the traumatic experience is one of the major predictors of improved health.” -James Pennebaker
The important feature seems to be that expressive writing helps us integrate the trauma into the narrative of our life, and if we can do that, and give the trauma meaning, (we are who we are because of that event) its hold on us releases. We are the story we tell ourselves, and our traumas are important, vital chapters in our story.
How To Do The Expressive Writing Technique
Get a notebook, and pick a place where you can write uninterrupted for 20 minutes, 4 nights in a row.
- Write about the most traumatic experience in your life.
- Trust where your writing takes you
- Seek to understand how the trauma fits into your life story in a meaningful way.
- Write without editing yourself, no one will read this. Be explicitly honest.
- You can write long hand or type, studies have found there is no measurable difference.
For more details, I highly recommend Expressive Writing by James Pennebaker.