Sharing a problem has always halved it, goes the saying. But that old wives’ tale may prove to be good for our health too – if instead of talking over our problem, we write about it.
Putting pen to paper to express our true feelings about difficult and sensitive issues will improve both mental and physical conditions, research has shown. And experts are so impressed by the results, they are now prescribing journal therapy to overcome a myriad medical problems.
‘I’ve always been impressed by how people are ultimately their own best therapists,’ says James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. ‘Writing is a tool to help them discover what those issues are that are bothering them.’ He used expressive writing to tackle his own marriage insecurities. Having married when he left college, after three years he and his wife were questioning ‘some of the basic assumptions of our relationship.’
He began showing signs of depression; he lost his appetite, began smoking more and started to avoid seeing friends. A month into this social isolation he began to write daily about his thoughts and feelings. He spent 10 minutes to an hour at a time, writing initially about the marriage, but gradually also about his parents and career.
‘Each day after writing I felt fatigued but also freer,’ he says. ‘By the end of the week, I noticed my depression lifting. For the first time in years – perhaps ever – I had a sense of meaning and direction. I fundamentally understood my deep love for my wife and the degree to which I needed her.’
His subsequent research has shown that short-term, focused writing can have a beneficial effect on a variety of audiences – from college students facing a transition to independence, those handling a divorce or grieving the loss of a loved one, to those who have been victims of violent crime or are suffering from cancer.
‘When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,’ professor Pennebaker says. ‘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. People will tell us months afterwards that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them.
‘Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives. You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are – our financial situation, our relationships with others, our view of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing helps us focus and organise the experience.’ However, he makes a distinction between journal therapy and keeping a long-term diary. The latter is a record of events and may include some reaction to them. But journaling should be undertaken for a few minutes every day for just a few days, focusing on innermost thoughts about a specific situation.
‘I’m even convinced that people shouldn’t write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks,’ the professor says. ‘You risk getting into a sort of navel-gazing or cycle of self-pity. But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.’
Researchers believe a part of the brain is stimulated into action by the physical process of writing, which means issues can be brought into a perspective not possible simply by talking. Links are also being investigated between expressive writing and the biological changes it activates, such as better sleep patterns, key to overall health improvements.
In some US clinics, cancer patients are being encouraged to blog about their experiences to connect with fellow sufferers and potentially experience lower levels of pain. Medics will observe the practice for its therapeutic value.
Other conditions where patients have recorded improvements following journaling include lung functioning in asthma, disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis and pain intensity in women with chronic pelvic pain. Psychologists and researchers warn that at the beginning of journal therapy, patients often suffer an increase in negative emotions as they confront the issues they are facing.
But the long-term benefits outweigh the temporary relapse. Psychotherapist Maud Purcell, who founded The Life Solution Center of Darien in Connecticut, US, warns her clients against overthinking the writing process when she recommends journaling.
‘I tell people: “Don’t think about what you are writing – let the pen do the work, don’t edit yourself or let your thinking get in the way of your writing”.’
Professor Pennebaker says journaling helps you to challenge the way you are looking at a situation. ‘If you are thinking negatively and write it down, you can see the fallacies in your thinking – you can see your negative thoughts are just not logical.
‘It can be especially helpful around life transitions; for example if you are in an unhappy marriage and contemplating how you can improve it, writing will help clarify your thoughts.
He says the process is also very useful for those who are anxious or depressed – ‘that’s often exacerbated, if not caused, by faulty thinking. When you write about those issues and thoughts, you can see they are irrational.
‘It’s much more powerful than anything I could tell people,’ he says. ‘I talk to your logical self, but the information is much more powerful if it hits you on an emotional level. Journaling takes information from below the surface of consciousness and brings it to the surface.’
The therapy had a dramatic effect on one of his colleagues – a young woman he worked with who had lost her husband in an accident.
She went to professor Pennebaker as she felt she needed to write about her loss. She did so for just four days, but on the last day she decided to change her life. She quit graduate school and moved back to her hometown because the writing had made her realise she was on a life path she no longer wanted and that she had been putting on a false, cheerful front with her friends.
‘As a researcher, I could say, “Well here I have a technique that made an individual drop out of school, stop pursuing an advanced degree and return home”,’ the professor says. ‘It was a dramatic change, and it sounds like a failure. But from her perspective, it wasn’t.’ Writing about an issue is so much more powerful than simply thinking about it, psychotherapist Maud says. ‘Writing tends to affect a different part of the brain as it’s a physical activity. You write with your dominant hand and activate the other side of your brain so therefore it’s likely to be occupying both sides of the brain and that’s when creativity is best.’
She recommends people find a tranquil setting for their journaling at the same time every day (‘not a cluttered desk’) and believes using pencil and paper is more effective than a computer as it uses more muscles and is a slightly slower process, allowing for more focus on thoughts.
‘If you set aside just 10 minutes to think about what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way, it’s like a GPS that will help you navigate through your emotions and thoughts,’ she says.
She admits there might not necessarily be any great watershed moment from the process. ‘But it perhaps made you realise there’s nothing you can do so it’s pointless worrying about it anyway.’