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Write Your Way to Better Health

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In just four days, you can lower your risk for illness…

When it comes to staying healthy (or getting healthy), most people are willing to do whatever it takes—whether it’s changing their diet, getting more exercise, using supplements and/or taking medication. But there’s another way to improve your health that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

Writing down your feelings not only helps you feel better mentally but also results in beneficial physiological changes, including reduced blood pressure and strengthened immune function. Now researchers are uncovering the best ways to get the greatest health benefits from therapeutic writing.

This may all sound great if you’re a would-be novelist or poet. But what if writing has never been your thing…or the rules of grammar leave your head spinning? Don’t worry. You can still realize the health benefits of this powerful technique.

To learn more, Bottom Line Health spoke with Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a psychologist and pioneer in the field of therapeutic writing.

HOW SECRETS HARM US

Therapeutic writing got started when my colleagues and I became intrigued by a landmark study that found that people who suffered a trauma (such as the death of a loved one, a breakup of an important relationship or a sexual or physical assault)—and kept it a secret—were at higher risk for illness (ranging from colds and flu to ulcers and elevated blood pressure) compared with those who talked about their traumatic experiences.

This finding led us to wonder: If not talking about traumatic events harms health, would asking people to talk—or write—about emotional upsets improve health?

To test this hypothesis, we asked college students to write for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days on a nonemotional topic or to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic experience—or a current major conflict or stressor—in their lives. (The latter approach is known as “expressive writing.”)

Result: By the last day, most of those who did expressive writing said that the experience was important to them…and four months later, those students had made 43% fewer (onetime) visits to the doctor for sickness than those who wrote about superficial topics.

Since our first study, a growing body of research has revealed specific physiological changes that occur after writing expressively.

The benefits include faster healing following surgery…lower blood pressure…strengthened immune function…reduced physical symptoms as well as better sleep and daytime functioning in cancer patients…and less fatigue in rheumatoid arthritis patients.

GETTING STARTED

To harness the health benefits of expressive writing, plan to write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days.

Day one: Write your deepest thoughts and feelings about a past trauma or a current emotional upheaval that may be influencing your life now. This could include major life experiences or traumas, such as divorce, a death or a long-lasting conflict in your life.

Simply write about the event itself—how you felt when it was happening and how you feel about it now. Do not worry about grammar, sentence structure or spelling.

Days two, three and four: For the next three days, continue to write about the same trauma, upheaval or major life conflict, digging even deeper into your feelings and thoughts. Write about how this trauma affects all aspects of your life, including your relationships. Other considerations…

  • Type or write longhand? Studies have not found a significant difference in effectiveness. Do whichever you find more comfortable.
  • Plan to throw away your writing. What you write is for your eyes only. Feel free to destroy or hide it each day when you are done.
  • Don’t worry if you initially feel sad. Give yourself some time after your writing session to reflect on what you’ve written and to relax. Any sadness usually lifts after an hour or so as you move on to other activities. This exercise helps you to get some emotional distance from the trauma. If the sadness doesn’t lift, you may want to consider seeing a therapist.

Also: Feel free to experiment. The four-day method, as used in our study, works for many people, but you may prefer writing about your feelings for two days…or six days. You may find it easier to talk into a tape recorder about your deepest emotions rather than writing about them. See what works for you!

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Source: James W. Pennebaker, PhD, the Regents Centennial Professor in the department of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of numerous books, including Expressive Writing and his most recent, Opening Up by Writing It Down. Date: July 1, 2016 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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