Writing about trauma can improve health

Sarah Seraj

Writing about upsetting experiences can improve both mental and physical health, researchers have found.

Studies show that people who hold in major secrets are more likely to have health problems compared to those who do not. This is what led UT psychiatry professor James Pennebaker to explore expressive, or therapeutic, writing as a solution for dealing with trauma in the 1980s. He thought writing might be better than talking because it would allow people to be honest about their experiences without worrying about what others thought.

Over the course of two decades, there have been 200 published studies on expressive writing, according to an article in the Independent Practitioner from 2010. The Pennebaker Language Lab, which published the first study on expressive writing in 1986, held writing sessions in a laboratory setting where participants would come in to write about upsetting experiences. The writing exercises lasted 15 minutes each day for three or four days. Afterward, the lab tracked the health records of the participants. In one study, participants who wrote about their traumatic experiences went to the health center at about half the rate of the control group, Pennebaker said.

But the benefits are not associated only with physical health.

“People after writing, if they had lost their jobs, were more likely to get jobs again more quickly, probably because they resolve (their) issues,” Pennebaker said. “People who write about upsetting experiences sleep better and make better grades.”

Ryan Boyd, psychology postdoctoral fellow, said he saw similar results in his work with UT psychiatry professor Cindy Meston on expressive writing for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Study participants were asked to write about their sexual experiences over the course of several sessions. Boyd, who also works with Pennebaker, uses linguistic tools such as the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count to categorize words people use into different clusters such as positive emotion words, social words and pronouns. These patterns help identify different psychological phenomena.

Text analysis revealed the initial language patterns of the sexual abuse victims to be typical of depression and insecurity, Boyd said. But over the course of the study, a change happened.

“Their language came to look more and more like the group that had never been abused,” Boyd said. “The language seemed like it was less depressed, less hypersexual. So, it seemed to be the case that as they were writing about this and kind of working through this in their heads, they start to think about it more and more like an average healthy adult who has never been abused.”

Pennebaker advised students to utilize expressive writing as a tool whenever something is plaguing them or causing them to lose sleep, especially if they don’t feel comfortable talking about it with others.

“Explore your deepest thoughts and feelings in your writing,” Pennebaker said. “Tie it into other things in your life. Did something like this happen in the past? Is it related to your parents, to your family, to your feelings about yourself? Is it associated with school, or who you’d like to be in the future or who you have been in the past? This writing is for you and you alone, so be brutally honest in terms of what’s going on.”