A growing number of studies show that people—including those dealing with physical illness—who use expressive writing have seen positive results. Expressive writing differs from other sorts of writing mainly in the level of openness required on the page. Participants are asked to write about their innermost thoughts and feelings regardingtraumatic and stressful experiences.
Dr. James W. Pennebaker, who chairs the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin is, perhaps, the most active researcher on the topic. In Pennebaker’s first expressive writing study published in 1986, forty-six healthy college students were divided into two groups and asked to write for fifteen minutes on four consecutive days. One group was asked to write about the most traumatic events in their lives, the other on inconsequential topics. Students who wrote about traumatic events were in better health six months after the experiment. They used a pain reliever less often and paid fewer visits to the campus health center. The authors concluded that “writing about earlier traumaticexperience was associated with both short-term increases in physiological arousal and long-term decreases in health problems.”
In 2005 Advances in Psychiatric Treatment published a survey of the literature on expressive writing to date. The authors Karen A. Baikie and Kay Wilhelm’s report showsboth the benefits and limitations of expressive writing. They note that although many participants in expressive writing exercises experience short-term distress, negative mood, and physical symptoms, longer-term benefits seem to make up for initial discomforts. Expressive writers show fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, improved immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure, improved lung function, improved liver function, improved mood/affect, feeling of greater psychological well-being, etc. They are absent from work less often, enjoy quicker re-employment after job loss, have improved working memory, improved sporting performance, and higher student grade point averages. Benefits of expressive writing have been seen in people with the following illnesses:asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, HIV, cystic fibrosis, and others.
In their article, Baikie and Wilhelm also describe why expressive writing seems to work. Emotional catharsis is an ineffective explanation. Instead, those who confront previously inhibited emotions may reduce physiological stress through cognitive processing. Developing a coherent narrative may help to reorganize and structure traumatic memories, resulting in increased ability to adapt. Some evidence also suggests that repeated exposure may help eliminate negative emotional responses to traumatic memories. The authors conclude by advising clinicians to use expressive writing as adjunct to standard medical and psychological treatment, not a replacement, despite it’s demonstrated benefits. Research is ongoing…