After performing extensive tests, James W. Pennebaker, PhD, has written a series of books that examine the question of whether or not the practice of writing has the ability to heal emotional wounds. I do not intend to recite his laboratory findings, but I do believe that he says things in his books that most of us need to know:
“Major secrets can be stressful. Like other stressors, keeping secrets from those close to us can affect our health, including our immune function, the action of our heart and vascular systems, and even the biochemical workings of our brain and nervous systems. In short, keep back thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can place us at risk for both major and minor diseases.
“Whereas harboring secrets is potentially harmful, confronting our personal thoughts and feelings can have remarkable short- and long-term health benefits. Confession, whether by writing or talking…can neutralize many of the problems of secrets.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, pgs. 1-2.
“Virtually all of us have actively avoided thinking about unpleasant experiences. Some have actively avoided thinking about unpleasant experiences. Some issues are so painful that we deceive ourselves into thinking that they don’t exist.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 7.
“Most striking, however, was that those who reported a sexual trauma evidenced more health problems than any other group we had ever seen.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 14.
Writing Is A Way to Organize
“We don’t need to talk to other to tell our untold stories. Whether we talk into an audio recorder, scribble on a magic pad, or type on our iPad, translating thoughts into language can be psychologically and physically beneficial. When people write about important events, they begin to organize and understand them. Writing about the thoughts and feelings connected with unexpected experiences forces us to bring together their many facets. Once we can distill complex experiences into more understandable packages, we can begin to move beyond them.
“Writing, then, organizes upheavals.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 65.
Writing Clears the Mind
“Before beginning a complex task, it can be beneficial to write out your thought and feelings. Indeed, many professional hypnotists often use this technique to accelerate the hypnotic procedure. Basically, they ask their clients to jot down their current thoughts and feelings. When their clients finish writing, the hypnotists tell them to tear up the paper and throw it away. This serves as a symbolic form of clearing the mind.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 72.
Benefits of Freewriting
“Freely writing your thoughts and feelings before beginning any formal writing can loosen your writing skills.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 73.
Is Writing on a Blog Helpful?
Yes. Pennebaker, James. Opeing Up by Writing It Down, p. 76.
Writing Needs to be Self-Reflective and Not Research
The author recalls that a scholarly person, who had been writing for a while came to his center and wanted to share his writing, which apparently had not helped him.
“He was a fluid writer with an impressive vocabulary and a keen eye for nuances in people’s behaviors. In his writing, he drew heavily from Jung, Spinoza, Aristotle, Lao0Tzu, and other intellectual luminaries. Despite his insight into other people’s behaviors and even his own mental processes, he never wrote about his own emotions or why he felt the way he did. He was so concerned with demonstrating his own brilliance that he forgot why he was writing in the first place.”
“…don’t expect intellectualization to improve your health.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, pgs. 79-80.
Don’t Use Writing as A Forum for Uncensored Complaining
“Remember that a prime value of writing is that it forces us to ask how and why we feel the ways we do. Ideally, writing helps us organize, structure, order, and make meaning of these experiences. As a self-reflective exercise, it is beneficial to acknowledge our deepest emotions and thoughts….Merely complaining…will not be particularly healing. Indeed, it hay be harmful.
“Many studies have demonstrated that blindly venting anger often makes us feel angrier. Hitting a pillow, pretending it is someone we would like to slug, ususally increases our blood pressure….Talking or writing about the source of our problems without self-reflection, merely adds to our distress.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 78.
Don’t Recite Memorized Facts – Be Real
“Although these overdisclosers appear to be confiding their deepest thoughts and feelings, a closer analysis suggests that they are divulging traumatic events in a repetitive fashion without self reflecting. Again, they have rehearsed the events in their minds and in conversations thousands of times, but have not explored either their emotions or the meaning of the events to their lives.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, pgs. 78-79.
“Whereas periodic self-reflection is healthy, it can be carried to an extreme. …
“If we live completely in this self-reflective state, we cannot be empathic….To the degree that writing helps us understand and even reorient our lives, it is beneficial. When we self-reflect to the point of self-absorption, it becomes maladaptive.” Pennebaker, JameOpeninging Up by Writing It Down, p. 79.
Writing Is Not A Substitute for Talking and Friends
“Other people’s views and opinions usually ground us in reality. Without consulting others, we can blow many of our thoughts and emotions far out of proportion–cans can help provide us a ‘reality check’ that we often need. …
“Friends…can offer emotional support, advice, and other forms of assistance in ways that writing just can’t do. Just because you may no be able to talk to some of your friends about a specific topic, remember that they are available for general advice and friendship. If friends are unavailable, psychotherapists and other people in the helping profession will listen to your problems and help keep your sense of reality intact.” Pennebaker, JameOpeninging Up by Writing It Down, p. 80.
People Who Have Significant Emotional Problems or Who Are Seriously Ill Still Need Professional Help
“For people who are deeply distressed and who are unable to cope effectively, therapy is often the only realistic alternative….Similarly, when individual suffer from a significant health problem, writing (or therapy) may positively influence their bodies. In most cases, however, they will be much wiser to visit a physician first….
“Writing, then, should be viewed as preventive maintenance. The value of writing or talking about our thoughts and feelings lies in reducing the work of inhibition and in organizing our complicated and messy mental and emotional lives. Writing helps to keep our psychological compass oriented. Writing can be an inexpensive, simple, albeit sometimes painful way to help maintain our health.” Pennebaker, JameOpeninging Up by Writing It Down, p. 80.
Pennebaker’s book confirms several ideas that I have had for quite some time. If you need a more detailed analysis of his test results, find a copy of this book.
©Jacki Kellum September 11, 2016