Right now, the concept of writing may produce a pretty divisive response in all of you reading this. As a journalism major, I admit that I do not write nearly as much as I probably should be writing. Many of you may feel the same way, whether or not you are in a writing-based major or are a fan of writing in general. You have probably heard that writing is good for you, although you might not know how exactly so. Well, there is significant evidence to show that writing holds many mental health benefits – it makes you happier, improves your thinking and communicating skills, and leads to increased gratitude among a number of other things – but did you know that if taken a step further, it provides physical benefits as well? Yes, writing has commonly been used to help people heal from stresses and traumas — but further research suggests that in addition to psychological benefits, expressive writing may offer physical benefits to people suffering from terminal or life-threatening diseases.
It turns out a few studies have been conducted to support the idea that writing holds physical benefits:
In 1999, a groundbreaking study led by Joshua Smyth, PhD, of Syracuse University was one of the first to make known the physical health benefits of writing. 107 asthma patients and 107 rheumatoid arthritis patients were assigned to write for 20 minutes on each of three consecutive days – 71 of them about the most stressful event of their lives and the rest about a more emotionally neutral subject, their daily plans. Four months after the writing exercise, 70 patients in the stressful-writing group showed improvement in objective evaluations, compared to just 37 of the control patients. APA states that those patients who wrote about stress “improved more, and deteriorated less, than controls for both diseases.”
In a similar study led by Elizabeth Broadbent, a sample of 49 senior citizens, aged 64 to 97, were subjected to an assignment wherein half of them wrote for 20 minutes a day about the most traumatic moment they had ever experienced. They were encouraged to be as open and candid as possible and were even asked to share any emotions or thoughts they had never shared to others about what they had gone through. The other participants simply wrote about their plans for the next day while taking care to avoid mentioning any feelings, opinions or beliefs, much like the control group in the previous study. Two weeks after writing commenced, the researchers took small skin biopsies which left a small wound on the participants’ arms. A week later, they came back to photograph the wounds every three to five days until they were completely healed. Eleven days after the biopsy, they found that 76% of the group that had written about their most traumatic experiences had fully healed while only 42% of the other group had.
Meanwhile, James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has conducted a long-running study in which he assigned people to write down their deepest feelings about an emotional upheaval in their lives for 15 or 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Many of those who followed these simple instructions have found their immune systems strengthened.
The results of these studies point to a significant correlation between writing and improvement of physical health, possibly suggesting the existence of a lurking variable at play. As held by Pennebaker, the writing itself is probably not a direct cause of the correlation – in this case, the underlying mechanism is the stress-relieving, mental health benefits of writing about trauma, which in turn push over into the improvement of physical health in the long term.
So what is it about writing that makes it so good for you?
“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives,” Pennebaker says. “Writing helps us focus and organize the experience.” In other words, he believes that writing can help us put some structure and organization into any negative feelings we have about an event and allow us to move past them instead of obsessing over them. By doing so, stress levels go down and health correspondingly goes up.
Does writing really help heal wounds? After all, the healing is rooted in the patient’s mind and nothing else, say a number of psychologists who use it with their patients. Not everyone may agree that writing is necessarily beneficial to one’s health. If the results of the studies I mentioned above are true, does that mean we should all keep a daily log of our worst experiences? According to Pennebaker, that would not necessarily reflect the best course of action as it may produce the opposite of the desired effect on some people. “I’m not convinced that having people write every day is a good idea,” he says. “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than two weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity.” Which, of course, produces the exact opposite of what you would want writing to accomplish assuming writing is good for you — wallowing in a heap of self-pity elevates your stress levels, which leads your health to proportionately go down.
On the other hand, although more studies are needed to support the idea that writing helps to heal, such approaches could become commonplace if they continually turn up positive results like Broadbent’s and Pennebaker’s studies. So if you ever find yourself in a great deal of physical pain or illness, it would not be a bad idea to try probing the hidden recesses of your mind and putting onto paper some of the most unpleasant thoughts you’ve racked up over the years. It might be distressing, cumbersome, or downright excruciating for some, but who knows? It could speed up the healing process in more ways than you would ever have thought. No matter what the occasion, writing is never a bad idea, so we should all break into the habit of writing more.