How Can Writing Improve Your Health?
On Diaries, Journals and Blogs...
People write on diaries, journals and blogs for many reasons. A diary is sometimes called on as a friend one writes to because it takes everything in, it "listens", and it never makes judgments and side comments on sloppy wordings and shallow tantrums. It also doesn't (or can't) spill any secrets. Sometimes, people use journals to record their thoughts or log in activities that transpired during the day. And blogs are being used today to write just about anything - from ranting, to advocating a cause, sharing pieces of information about certain activities, and making friends online with strangers who share the same interest and/or passion as with the blogger. Marked trends show increasing usage of sites hosting blogging platforms such as Blogger, LiveJournal, Wordpress, MySpace, Multiply, etc.
Other than interest in writing, what could be the potential reason why people continue to use these media to express themselves? James Pennebaker offers an intriguing perspective.
James Pennebaker's Cathartic Writing
James Pennebaker married right after getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Months of troubles and problems during his early marriage compelled him to write about his thoughts and feelings in a journal. Gradually, after a week of writing, he gained better perspective of his problems and found a sense of meaning and direction in his life. He realized how much he truly loved and needed his wife.
Drawing from this experience, James Pennebaker, along with a graduate student named Sandra Beall, conducted an experiment in 1981 to study the effects of writing on one's health. Pennebaker surmised that the Theory of Catharsis can be applied to writing as well. (Sigmund Freud's theory of catharsis states that people find relief from emotional distress and consequent psychological symptoms by simply expressing their emotions to a trained listener. This serves as the basis for today's method of Psychotherapy in which the patient talks about his thoughts, feelings, problems and uncertainties to a psychologist.) He found that college students who wrote about their upsetting and traumatic experiences, along with the associated emotions, reduced their illness visits to the student health center. They were significantly healthier than those students who wrote objectively (without emotions) about negative life events, and those who wrote about topics unrelated from their experiences.
Follow-up studies supported Pennebaker's findings. Pennebaker, Riecolt-Glaser and Glaser (1988) tested the blood samples of the participants and found that cathartic writing boosts the immune system. Additionally, Pennebaker, Spera and Buhrfeind (1994) found that cathartic writing among middle-aged engineers, who were fired after 30 years of service in a company, lead them to overcome their frustration and find alternative employment, compared to those who did not and remained angry and unemployed. This and other success stories strongly suggest that the theory of catharsis can be modified to include writing as a means to improve physical health and psychological well-being.
Applying the Research Finding: Steps to Improve your Health through Writing
- Choose a private place to write to avoid or minimize distraction.
- Do not try to schedule your writing. Write whenever you are ready, when you feel the need to, and when you want to.
- Write what preoccupies you at the moment. They could be secrets or fears. Include what you feel and think about them.
- Write for no one, and never hold back. Don't worry about spelling or grammatical errors. You don't need to justify yourself.
- Try to write continuously for days. Although you will definitely see things in better perspective, observed results are often long-term. Remain focused on writing about your problems.
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