James Pennebaker is an American social psychologist and professor of Psychology at the University of Texas. He came up with revolutionary ideas about how writing about your feelings can actually improve your physical health. Although we all know that bottling up one’s feelings isn’t a good idea and can lead to stress, Pennebaker was the first person to provide evidence that this was the case. He has had an impact on social, clinical and health psychology as well as in the computer science and linguistics fields.
Pennebaker conducted numerous experiments to test his hypothesis that through putting emotions into words, we could relieve ourselves of some of the stress these emotions bring. In one of his first experiments, he had participants write for fifteen minutes for four days. The people in the experimental condition were told to write about traumatic experiences they had faced in their lives and hadn’t really talked about with anyone. They were told to explore their deepest emotions and thoughts. The people in the control condition were told to write about superficial things such as describing the room they were in, the shoes they were wearing or simply a tree. The results were impressive. It was found that participants in the experimental condition made half the number of visits to the doctors than those in the control condition.
Annette Stanton, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UCLA, was very interested in these findings and was spurred on to do research of her own. She randomly assigned women with breast cancer who had just undergone treatment to either write about thoughts and feeling about their cancer (expressive writing) or to write about objective facts of breast cancer (non-expressive writing). Three months later, it was found that women in the expressive writing condition had fewer physical symptoms and made fewer medical appointments related to their cancer compared to their controls. The cancer progression was similar between the groups of women but expressive writing had alleviated many of the painful symptoms of the cancer.
According to Pennebaker, these remarkable findings could be due to the fact that labeling things makes us feel better. Once we put down our emotions into words, we can better understand them and think about them logically. He also said that putting ideas into a coherent story is crucial. It makes our complex thoughts and feelings simpler to understand. The process of translating experiences into words is beneficial for our mental and physical health.
There are some loopholes, however, in his research. The results he obtained weren’t always consistent. He found that this was partly due to the way people write. Once people begin writing in the story format Pennebaker favoured, people usually got better. However, people who already wrote in this specific, logical, organized format did not benefit greatly from the writing exercises. It was only those who started off chaotic that improved. Pennebaker believed that changes in language reflected changes in thinking. Therefore, if they were thinking in a more rational manner they would write a more coherent story.
Pennebaker was also quick to note that people are connecting differently now than they did many years ago, back in the 1980’s when he conducted his first experiments. We are constantly updating Facebook statuses, Tweeting, and expressing our opinions and ideas on blogs which is conducive to our mental health. Nonetheless, his experiments have had tremendous impact and inspired many researchers to experiment in this area. It has been found that expressive writing can improve your chances of finding a job after being made redundant, it can improve GPA and increase working memory, it can strengthen relationships and help people become more socially active and it has been proven to help heal wounds faster. The benefits of expressive writing are undeniable.
So pick up your pens, or more likely snap open your laptops, and update some Facebook statuses, type a few Tweets or post on your blog. Whatever you chose to do, write expressively!
Hammond, C. (Writer). (April 12, 2013). James Pennebaker and Expressive Writing [Radio series episode]. In Burgess, M. (Producer), Mind Changers. UK: BBC Radio 4
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