It’s been a while since my last post but I wanted to stay on the subject of writing given the amount of literature I’ve found on its therapeutic effects. Last time I focused on how writing about things you are grateful for may increase your wellbeing. However, there are therapeutic effects in writing about other things aside from gratitude.
Firstly, there’s writing about traumatic and/or negative experiences. Zech and Rime (2005) found that simply talking about trauma did not yield any therapeutic effects. Greenberg and Stone (1992) asked participants to write about a past traumatic event for 20 minutes over three sessions. Those who disclosed more severe traumas reported less physical symptoms and greater happiness and self esteem at a one month follow up than those who disclosed traumas of lower severity. Greenberg, Wortman and Stone (1996) asked college women with reported traumas to write about either real trauma, imaginary trauma or trivial events. Those who wrote about imaginary trauma were significantly less depressed than those who wrote about real trauma at immediate post-test although there were no differences in mood. Both the trauma groups reported less physical health symptoms at a one month follow up however the real trauma group reported more fatigue and avoidance than the other groups. However, it may have been worth asking the participants to write about the trauma over a few sessions. Pennebaker, Mehl & Niederhoffer (2003) proposed that it is not the act of writing that is therapeutic but the change in perspective about one’s situation and coping strategies. With respect to real or imagined trauma, expressive writing allows an individual to learn that they are capable of handing emotional experiences and can gain insight into different ways with dealing with emotional upheaval. Greenberg et al (1996) proposed that writing about imagined trauma “could reflect catharsis, emotional regulation or construction of resilient possible selves”. This is further supported by the fact that writing about emotional experiences that are not necessarily traumatic may also bring about health benefits (see review by Pennebaker, 1997).
No harm in starting young!
The therapeutic writing paradigm also seems to work when writing about positive events. Burton and King (2004) found that those who wrote about intensely positive experiences reported an enhanced positive mood after writing and made less visits to health centres at a three month follow up with respect to controls. King (2001) asked participants to write about either trauma, their best possible future self (BPS), both (combo group) or a non-emotional topic (controls) for 20 minutes over 4 consecutive days. Participants in the combo group wrote about trauma for the first 2 days, then BPS for the 3rd and 4th day. The BPS group showed lowered illness visits with respect to controls but the combo group did not significantly differ from controls. It is possible that the trauma-only and BPS group were able to bring a sense of closure about their topic in their own time and structure the event in a coherent manner, whereas the combo group were deprived of this due to the switch-over.
So how can writing make you happier?
- Write about a traumatic or negative life event in detail (more than once if necessary). This can even be an imagined event.
- Write about intensely positive events that have happened in your life or your best possible self.
- Most importantly, make sure your writing is expressive, complete and insightful.
If you’re more interested in writing, I suggest you visit Jamie Pennebaker’s website http://www.secretlifeofpronouns.com/ . He is a pioneering researcher in therapeutic writing and there are many articles written by him on the beneficial effects of writing.
Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2008). Effects of (very) brief writing on health: The two‐minute miracle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13(1), 9-14.
Greenberg, M. A., & Stone, A. A. (1992). Emotional disclosure about traumas and its relation to health: effects of previous disclosure and trauma severity.Journal of personality and social psychology, 63(1), 75.
Greenberg, M. A., Wortman, C. B., & Stone, A. A. (1996). Emotional expression and physical heath: Revising traumatic memories or fostering self-regulation?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 71(3), 588.
King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798-807.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166.
Pennebaker, J. W., Mehl, M. R., & Niederhoffer, K. G. (2003). Psychological aspects of natural language use: Our words, our selves. Annual review of psychology, 54(1), 547-577.
Zech, E., & Rime, B. (2005). Is talking about an emotional experience helpful? Effects on emotional recovery and perceived benefits, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, 270 – 87