It’s hard to believe that a few minutes of writing can lead to improvements in physical health, but it’s true! Researchers were stunned the first time they got the results showing that a particular writing assignment led to fewer asthma attacks, a reduction in blood pressure among people who had high blood pressure, and greater range of motion in the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers also tracked the participants and found that those who did the particular writing assignment had half the trips to the doctor in the months following compared to the people in the control group who were told to write about mundane things, such as describing the shoes they were wearing. These studies have now been done over and over and over again and the results hold. The people who benefit the most from these writing exercises are people who have problems of moderate severity rather than mild or severe.
Would you like to see if you can benefit from this? You’ll want to plan on writing for four days in a row for 15 minutes each time. You are not going to worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, neatness or anything. And if you run out of stuff to write, you’ll start over so that you stay busy for the entire 15 minutes. It doesn’t matter if you write by hand or type on a computer. And if writing is a problem, the research shows you can even talk into a recording device instead with almost the same results. Of course, the big question is, what are you supposed to write about?
I can only give you some general guidance here because what you choose to write about will be as unique as each person is. If you have had a traumatic event in your past that you haven’t talked about, this is your target. You might write about how this event has affected you. If you have a chronic illness, you might write about how it has impacted your life or how it has affected your family. You may not have an unresolved trauma in your past but you might have a major stressor in your life right now, such as problems at work. In this case, you should write about this.
The key to your writing is that you get into your feelings. This is not an impersonal report. How did this event or thing affect you? Is it still affecting you? Do you think your life would have been different without it? Do you see any good having come from the situation? Know that when you are writing this you are the only audience. Plan to keep this private or plan to destroy it after finishing your writing. (If you write with the intention of sharing it with someone else, it may change your focus and what you share in your writing).
If you find yourself becomes quite upset as you write, please stop. You may choose to write about something else or quit altogether. Do expect that you will feel a little down, upset, or distressed after completing the writing, much like you might feel after you’ve watched a sad movie. Within an hour or a couple of hours, your mood should return to normal.
You do not have to write about the same thing all four days. Your topic might be so enormous that you can write about four different aspects of it, one for each day. Or you might write about multiple different events or stresses.
In case you are wondering, these writing exercises allow people to work through thoughts and feelings and often to put them in some sort of perspective or have some sort of closure. When this happens, it lifts a burden off the immune system, which is impaired by stress. This is not the entire story, but it’s a big part of it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this writing exercise is not a substitute for therapy in most cases. In fact, it makes a great add-on to therapy. Additionally, in some research studies the physical benefits gained from this writing exercise were time-limited, disappearing in a matter of months.
Would you like to learn more? Check out Opening Up By Writing It Down, 3rd Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain by Dr. James Pennebaker and Dr. Joshua Smyth.