Can You Write Your Way to Health?

Did your New Year resolution have anything to do with committing to a healthier life?  Along with the commitment to early morning runs or signing up for an exercise did you consider a writing class?

A number of studies show we can write our way to better emotional, mental and physical health.

In two randomized, controlled trials published in Human Communication Research, healthy college students who spent 20 minutes writing about their affection for loved ones (friends, relatives, and/or romantic partners) experienced significant drops in total cholesterol (the mean cholesterol levels reduced from 170 mg/dL to 159 mg/dL), while students in the control group, who wrote about random topics, did not. Try it out!

Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of Psychology, at the University of Texas, Austin coined the term “Expressive Writing” (1). In his landmark research project, Pennebaker developed an expressive writing prompt to uncover the potential health benefits of writing about emotional turmoil. Pennebaker’s research project has been replicated hundreds of times with positive outcomes. The prompt and subsequent studies are often referred to as the Pennebaker Paradigm.

You don’t have to be a professional writer to write yourself healthy.  The following guidelines are from Dr. Pennebaker’s website.

Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed. Ideally, pick a time at the end of your workday or before you go to bed.

Commit to yourself that you will write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least 3 or 4 successive days.

Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written.

You can write longhand or you can type on a computer. If you are unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder.

You can write about the same thing on all 3-4 days of writing or you can write about something different each day. It is entirely up to you.  You can write about something that you are thinking or worrying about too much, that you’re  dreaming about, that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way or that you have been avoiding for days, weeks, or years.

Here is a sample of writing instructions:
Over the next four days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?

Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.

Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.

Your writing samples are for you and for you only. Their purpose is for you to be completely honest with yourself. When writing, secretly plan to throw away your writing when you are finished. Whether you keep it or save it is really up to you.

Some people keep their samples and edit them. That is, they gradually change their writing from day to day. Others simply keep them and return to them over and over again to see how they have changed.  Or you can burn, shred or flush them. Tear them into little pieces and toss them into the ocean or let the wind take them away.

Another writing method for healthy outcomes is journaling when you’re reading developmental books.  It assists in discerning patterns of behaviors, getting a clearer sense of issues you may be dealing with and assessing realistic goals when you are attempting to make healthy changes in your life.

If any of this is too daunting there are many great journals available that can walk you through the writing process with prompts that stimulate ideas for writing about yourself or loved ones in your life, including the special dog, cat or horse in your life!

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One Response to Can You Write Your Way to Health?

  1. Peg says:

    Great article! I will pass along to friends!

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