Writing therapy: How writing your life story can benefit your health

June 23, 2017
June 23, 2017 Theo Brainin

Writing therapy: How writing your life story can benefit your health

Did you know that writing about yourself can benefit your physical and mental health?

It may sound strange – but multiple scientific studies have shown that the simple act of putting pen to paper reduces the risk of depression and other illnesses.

In the last two decades, research has demonstrated that writing about painful memories and traumas can be an effective form of therapy. More recently, scientists have found that writing about yourself in a positive sense is also linked to better health.

Either way, the claim is the same: writing about yourself is good for you! Let’s review the evidence.

How writing about trauma helps

According to Psychology Today, painful memories can have long-lasting effects on our mental health.

One reason for this is that such memories are fragmented. The events they record may lack explanation or seem senseless – for example, the sudden death of a loved one. Since the brain is not able to work through the fragments of memory, the same thoughts constantly resurface, making it even more difficult to gain a sense of closure.

It turns out that writing about your memories could be the answer.

Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, is considered to be the pioneer of writing therapy.

Dr. James Pennebaker

In 1997, a study Pennebaker and his colleagues showed that writing about psychological trauma is an effective form of therapy. Participants were asked to spend three consecutive days writing about a traumatic event. They were compared to another group that wrote about unemotional topics, like management. Over time, the individuals who participated in this study reported fewer illnesses and suffered fewer symptoms of depression in the future.

Pennebaker’s basic paradigm for expressive writing experiments remains widely used today:

Pennebaker’s Typical writing instructions:

For the next 4 days, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life.
In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives; to your past, your present or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be or who you are now.
You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or about different topics each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.
Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.

The objective is not to write a story for someone else to read, but to create a coherent story for yourself, that can be linked to those memories. The act of constructing a story about a traumatic event helps to break free of endless mental cycling. It is safe to say that writing about traumas works as psychological closure. Pennebaker concludes:

“When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up.”

According to Susan Lutgendorf, PhD, of the University of Iowa, it’s even more beneficial if you can focus on the meaning behind a memory. She found that individuals who derived meaning from their writing reported better health than those who wrote about their experiences without focusing on meaning:

“You need focused thought as well as emotions. An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”

Susan Lutgendorf, PhD

Writing about Personal Goals

If this all seems a bit too gloomy, don’t worry. If you would rather focus on the positive, it turns out that writing about yourself can still improve your health.

In 2001, the researcher Laura King took Pennebaker’s writing paradigm a step further. She began to assess the benefits of writing about positive life experiences and goals. In her study (The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals), 81 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to four different groups: one group that wrote about traumatic experiences, another group that wrote about their best possible future self, a third group which was asked to write about both and the last group which wrote about a non-emotional topic. Each group was asked to write for 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days.

The results of this study were equally interesting as the ones presented before. Three weeks after the assignment, it was noted that writing about a best possible future self was less upsetting than writing about traumatic events. When students were studied five months after writing, those students who wrote about a traumatic life event, those students who wrote about a best possible self, and those students who wrote about both—all of them experienced a decrease in illness. Only the students who wrote about a non-emotional topic showed no change.

King draws the following conclusion:

“The act of writing down our deepest thoughts and feelings is key to the benefits of writing. However, and importantly, the contents of our deepest thoughts and feelings need not be traumatic or negative. Quite the contrary, examining the most hopeful aspects of our lives through writing—our best imagined futures, our ‘most cherished self-wishes’—might also bestow on us the benefits of writing that have been long assumed to be tied only to our traumatic histories.”

It turns out that writing about yourself can help to deal with trauma, but it also makes us happier and healthier if we focus on the positive. The best approach is down to you – think about your personal history, and what you’re most comfortable with.

By Büsra Nur Yürür


https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/200910/trauma-and-the-benefits-writing-about-it: 21.06.2017 11:20

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162-166.

Ullrich, P.A. & Lutgendorf, S.L. Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. (2002). Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 244-250.

King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798–807.