Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Writing to Heal: (Part 2)

Yesterday, I talked about the first study Dr. James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal, did with 50 college students who spent 15 minutes writing for four consecutive days. Dr. Pennebaker writes that the students were stunned by his instructions to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings.

"Previously, virtually no one had ever encouraged them to write about the most significant experiences in their lives. Nevertheless, they went into their cubicles and poured their hearts out...Many students came out of their writing rooms in tears. Clearly it was an emotionally trying experience for them. But they kept coming back. And, by the last day of the experiment, most reported that the experience had been profoundly important for them."

When Pennebaker tracked these students, he found that those in the expressive writing group made 43 percent fewer visits to doctors for illness than the control group who wrote about "superficial topics."

While that first study focused almost solely on visits to physicians, subsequent studies noted other changes. Some were conducted by Pennebaker and some by other researchers, but what they found follows:
  • "Emotional writing is associated with general enhancement of the immune system."

  • Emotional writing is associated with better lung function among asthma patients and lower pain and disease severity among arthritis suffers, higher white cell count among AIDS patients, and less sleep disturbance among patients with metastatic cancer.
  • "While people are talking or writing about traumas, they often show immediate signs of reduced stress."
  • "Immediately after writing about traumatic topics, people often feel worse." And Pennebaker says that is normal. But, "the long-term effects are are surely worth the momentary sadness. People who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative after writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals."

    While I had promised to discuss how all this relates to my bipolarity, I'll save that for tomorrow. (to be continued)

18 comments:

Bradley said...

I'm not sure why I started my blog, but I believe it was mostly to educate the public. For someone who has never been able to get myself to write a personal journal, I have learned that the benefits I receive from my blog likely far exceed the benefits any of my readers receive.

Jazz said...

Interesting stuff! I have always known in my gut that writing has the potential to be a great healer. Seems I was right!

KJ said...

I am curious in this study did it say if the benefits are equal if you talk about your experiences v.s. writing about them, or if there are greating benefits in the writing. Just curious as I would be very uncomfortable talking about personal things in person, but I think I could write about anything.

Jazz said...

I'm with KJ--I can write far more than I could ever bring myself to tell a therapist.

marja said...

This is so very interesting, Susan. Thank you for writing about this. Just proves how important blogging can be as therapy, doesn't it?

In answer to kj's question I would - from my own experience - say that writing is more valuable than simply talking. I think writing is less of a transient experience - if you know what I mean. Writing it down is giving more permanence to the unloading. And you can read what you've written at a later date, which is also healing.

Susan, I'm carrying on your theme a little on my blog: Writing letters to God.

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Bradley,
The same thing happened to me. At first, I felt I knew so much and had researched this subject for long that I could help others. Then I realized that the feedback, the relationships, and the support were truly helping me.

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Jazz,
You certainly were right!

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear KJ,
The only time he mentions "talking" is about reducing stress when "talking or writing about a traumatic event." The focus of his work is about writing.

And I feel like you do. It is far easier for me to write about how I feel than to talk about how I feel. I reach parts of myself through writing that I cannot reach through talking.

I'll write more about this in the next few days.

Susan

P.J. said...

One of the things I enjoy about writing is that I can go back and read it over so that I can see just how far I've come. With talking, I enjoy the immediate release and the help I get from the one I talk to. Or the solution to a problem that is stressing me out.

I think both avenues are therapeutic, and necessary. But I must say, writin is much more enjoyable!!

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Marja,
I seem to have missed a number of comments today so I'm sorry to respond so late. Yes, I would agreee that "blogging to heal" is a form of writing to heal. And when I was very sick, I often wrote letters to God.

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear PJ,
I would agree that writing allows me to look back and see how far I've come. It's also a great record of the progress I've made.

For me, talking is an entirely different thing. Yes, it makes me feel better to discuss things with my friends. But, for me, therapeutically, writing is more effective.

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Jazz,
I agree with both you and KJ that I can write what I cannot say!

Susan

Radagast said...

kj wrote:
"I am curious in this study did it say if the benefits are equal if you talk about your experiences v.s. writing about them, or if there are greating benefits in the writing..."

Pennebaker isn't the first person to note this phenomenon: Penny Parkes (Inner Child Theory), has a very specific methodology that she's developed. I'm not sure that it makes a great deal of difference whether one writes, or talks, but by either method, one clarifies one's own thoughts in one's head, which in and of itself makes a traumatic memory easier to deal with.

If one also builds in coping mechanisms, then the memory will be easier to process. That is: just diving into a memory effectively takes one back there, experiencing all the attendant negative emotions; so just diving in head first and spiralling round inside the memory should probably be avoided. So the theory goes, anyway.

Matt

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Matt:
Welcome to my blog and thanks for all the information. I genuinely appreciate your input and I'm sure my readers do as well. I haven't finished Pennebaker's book, but before I post tomorrow, I will certainly research the difference between "talking" and "writing." Again, thank you!

Susan
P.S. I'm pushed tonight but I'll drop by your blog much later.

Radagast said...

BWW wrote:
"Welcome to my blog and thanks for all the information..."

No problem. This is the book, btw:

http://www.aest.org.uk/innerchild/books_on_and_for_inner_child_work.html

It's principally aimed at victims of sexual abuse, if I remember aright, but the methodology is equally valid for other traumatic experiences, I think.

As I recall, one benefits from some kind of visualization thing, as much as the writing, which is done in the form of letters, addressing the traumatic incident as if it were a person (which is weird enough to have one thinking differently about the memory, to start with!), but one is also required to adopt a "perfect mentor" persona, who encourages the child to speak out, initially, and is able to provide feedback, positive support, objectivity, etc, after the letter has been written. In some ways, it's quite similar to NLP's Change Personal History technique, which is ALL visualization and spoken language, of course.

I think there's a counsellor's version of the book (I can't lay my hands on my copy), which has some quite useful tips in it, as I recall.

Matt

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Matt,
Thanks for the additional information. I'll check out my sources for the book. I so appreciate it!

Susan

Radagast said...

BWW wrote:
"Thanks for the additional information..."

You're welcome. One final word from me, on this subject, I think. I think that Marja's right when she writes that writing tends to be more therapeutic, inasmuch as one is able to discuss precisely what one wants to discuss. Most people feel unqualified to deal with these issues, and if one attempts a discussion, they will often exit as quickly as possible, out of sheer embarassment, or possibly because they have issues of their own, that they'd rather not visit...

Because one is not constrained by social etiquette, one my broach any subject, in writing. And, because one has one's Perfect Mentor (Adult You), to hand, one is assured of a measured response. Moreover, one is able to review one's "Letter To" (written as one experienced an incident, as a child), as an adult. In this way, it's possible to gain a more objective perspective, both as adult and child.

Which brings me to a final point about "talking" therapies. There is a methodology, known as "Clean Language," which requires that the counsellor clarifies what the client is trying to convey (in the style of "I don't quite follow - what do you mean by [that]"). The client, of course, knows precisely what they're referring to, but the counsellor will not have had the same experiences. I forget who it was made the observation, but when asked to clarify an abstract idea, say, clients begin to use metaphor and simile, quite spontaneously, and the results have been noted to be startling positive. And, in the final analysis, the client is the only person who may say whether or not something has worked, and as Penny Parkes suggests, this is typically indicated when a client feels that the memory of a traumatic incident no longer has the impact that it once had, or "it no longer seems to matter."

It seems, then, that being able to communicate one's experiences to others, have them understand, and then receive feedback such that one may come a satisfactory resolution in one's own mind, are the key elements. One knows when another person has understood, and that they are interested in what one has to say, simply by dint of the questions that they ask, and the type of feedback that they provide, I think. And we're all sensitized to the kind of responses that indicate that a person has no interest in discussing the things that we would like to address.

Matt

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Matt,
All very good points. Thank you for contributing to this discussion in such a thoughtful manner, and providing such a plethora of information.

Susan