Healing by Pen
In the stunning documentary, What I Want My Words to Do to You, author Eve Ensler leads a group of 15 incarcerated women through weekly writing exercises.1 All of the women have committed murder, and in some cases, multiple murders. The focus of the writing group is to give these women a forum for telling their stories, to write about their crimes and what life events led up to their committing those crimes. At the time of filming, the writing group had been meeting regularly for five years, going deeper and deeper in their retellings over time. It’s almost impossible to watch the film without being moved. As the women write and then read their stories to others, it’s obvious that a transformation is taking place, that psychological and emotional wounds are healing.
Numerous studies have shown that journaling can contribute to emotional health and that it even can boost physical health in myriad ways. First of all, it can boost immune functioning. This was initially found in a study out of the University of Auckland in New Zealand in which 37 HIV-positive patients were divided into two groups.2 The first group wrote about their painful life experiences, while the other wrote about their to-do lists. After four such writing sessions, the group that wrote about their experiences had markedly improved immune function as measured by their CD4 lymphocyte counts, unlike the control group.
Study director Dr. James Pennebraker attributes the immune boost to anxiety reduction. "By writing, you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings,” he says. "It helps you to get past them." He says that writing doesn’t need an audience and, in fact, the most healing type of writing is done for oneself.
Subsequent studies have shown that after spending 20 minutes a day journaling for four days running, subjects have a stronger antibody response to the Hepatitis B vaccine. Research also indicates that suppressing negative emotions after trauma leads to compromised immune function.
Similar results were found in another Pennebraker study back in 1989, this one focused on 107 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers who were divided into two groups. The first group wrote about their daily plans and the other wrote about the most stressful event of their lives.3 Four months later, those who had written about the difficult event showed significant improvement in lung function and pain reduction, respectively, in contrast to the control group.
Then there’s 2013 research out of New Zealand indicating that writing can help injuries to heal faster. In that study, 49 adults over the age of 65 wrote either about the things upsetting them or about something neutral every day for three days.4 Two weeks later, they all had arm biopsies. The group that had been journaling about their issues healed from the biopsy 34 percent faster than those who simply wrote about their daily schedules. Again, in this case, the study authors contribute the effect to the fact that in writing, the patients worked through their stress. Since high levels of stress affect cortisol levels and cortisol affects the immune system, that makes sense. And in fact, yet one more study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that writing about emotions lowers cortisol levels.5
Yet more research using similar writing scenarios have found that writing about trauma in a controlled fashion can result in reduced blood pressure, improved liver function, less insomnia, and shorter hospital stays.6 Another study published in 2008 in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found that cancer patients reported experiencing less pain when they journaled about their disease.7 The more that the patients expressed deep emotions in their writing, the better they felt. Then there are all the reported emotional benefits, also found in clinical journaling studies, including relief from depression, improved grade point average for students, reduced absenteeism, better sports performance, fewer PTSD episodes for trauma victims, and enhanced overall happiness.
To reap all these benefits, you can’t just grab your journal and start stream-of-conscience scribbling. According to Dr. Pennebraker, therapeutic writing needs two components. First, you have to tell the story, providing details of what happened that’s creating the trauma or stress. And then, you need to express your emotions about the situation. One without the other won’t do the trick, Pennebraker insists, because it takes both things to help patients distance from their problems and get perspective on them. In fact, he is experimenting with asking patients to tell their stories in the third person, while another researcher, Dr. Alan Peterkin at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, asks his AIDS patients to tell their stories not only in third person, but with all the elements of fiction, including character development and dialog.
Another journaling expert, psychotherapist Maud Purcell of the Life Solution Center in Darien, Connecticut, explains, “Writing accesses the left hemisphere of the brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to do what it does best, i.e. create, intuit, and feel. In this way, writing removes mental blocks and allows us to use more of our brainpower to better understand ourselves and the world around us." 8
The experts say that there are diminishing returns after telling the story the first time, meaning that therapeutic writing should be used as needed instead of going on a journaling marathon.8 Fifteen to 20 minutes a day seems to work well, and depending on the circumstances, four days or so might be enough for a particular issue. It helps to have a regular place to do the writing, and to eschew the computer in favor of the pen. That’s because writing by hand actually affects the brain differently than typing does. According to Ms. Purcell, “It appears that writing [by hand] stimulates an area of the brain called the RAS (reticular activating system), which filters and brings clearly to the fore the information we’re focusing on."
- 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szBDN-Hp4PU
- 2. Murray, Bridget. “Writing to Heal.” June 2002. American Psychological Association. 30 September 2016. http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/writing.aspx
- 3. Smyth, Jonathan M. et al. “Effects of Writing About Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction in Patients with Asthma or Rheumatoid Arthritis.” 14 April 1999. JAMA. 29 September 2016. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=189437
- 4. Rodriguez, Tori. “Writing Can Help Injuries Heal Faster.” 1 November 2013. Scientific American.30 September 2016. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/writing-can-help-injuries-heal-faster/
- 5. Smyth JM, Hockemeyer JR, Tulloch H. "Expressive writing and post-traumatic stress disorder: effects on trauma symptoms, mood states, and cortisol reactivity." Br J Health Psychol. 2008 Feb;13(Pt 1):85-93. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18230238
- 6. Baikie, Karen and Wilhelm, Kay. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” August 2005. BJ Health. 30 September 2016. http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/11/5/338.full
- 7. “How journal writing can make you healthier.” Nov/Dec 2009. Best Health Magazine. 30 September 2016. http://www.besthealthmag.ca/best-you/wellness/how-journal-writing-can-make-you-healthier/
- 8. a. b. Grothaus, Matthew. “Why Journaling is Good for Your Health (and 8 Tips to Get Better).” 29 January 2015. Fast Company. 30 September 2016. https://www.fastcompany.com/3041487/body-week/8-tips-to-more-effective-journaling-for-health