In 1988, psychologist James Pennebaker asked 50 university students to write about either something traumatic or something unimportant, for fifteen to twenty minutes, for four days in a row. Their health and visits to their doctor were measured six weeks after the writing exercise. The researchers found that students who had written about something traumatic, went on to show boosted immune function, lowered blood pressure, reduced feelings of depression and an elevated daily mood. Those writing about unimportant things showed no change.
The study has since been tried over 200 times by researchers around the world with remarkably similar results. From Holocaust survivors, to middle aged engineers faced with redundancy to bereaved people, survivors of abuse and random selections of people. Not all but most people who write about their deepest feelings regarding a painful or traumatic incident, benefit from the experience.
Pennebaker advises that if you want to try this for yourself, these are the factors that have been shown to have the best outcome:
Only do it when you feel ready to write about something upsetting. Forcing yourself to write about it before you feel ready can do more harm than good.
When writing about an upsetting experience, only do it for fifteen to twenty minutes and only for three or four days in a row. To revisit the same experience more than that would be the equivalent to ruminating, which is not good for you.
As you set down the story of what happened, share with the page your deepest feelings.
During the three or four days, note in your writing if your feelings about what the incident means to you have changed or if you feel you’ve learned anything from the traumatic or upsetting incident.
At the end of the three or four days, burn, tear up or throw away the pages and get on with life.
Image by iStock.com / Julia_Sudnitskaya
First published in Widows and Widowers magazine, Issue 13