I recently met a hero of mine, James Pennebaker. You may not have heard of him, but he profoundly influenced my work, because he taught me the power of expressive writing. 30 years ago James Pennebaker, a Professor of Social Psychology made a discovery, which is both obvious and often not acknowledged : keeping secrets is bad for us. What he learned is that writing about something, even if you do not talk about, it has health benefits. He first made this discovery when he asked students to write about a trauma that had happened to them earlier in their life, but which they had not spoken about. They wrote just 4 times for 15 minutes, but in the months that followed he was able to see that those who wrote had less visits to doctors and had fewer minor illnesses, He also found that immediately after writing our immune system is boosted. He concluded that confession is good for the body. His pioneer work has been replicated in over 1,000 studies, and in populations across the world and the same findings emerge. Writing is good for your health.
Why is this?
Firstly,when you write, you are often able to label your emotions in a way you may not feel comfortable doing if speaking out loud. Writing that you are feeling angry, pissed off, jealous or shameful starts the process of being able to separate away from the emotion.
Writing helps to organise the experience. Putting it out there, puts some space between you and the event, which is not possible, when it is swirling repetitively around inside your head. In creating that space, we begin to have new thoughts and emotions.
Thirdly, when we hold onto something, it impacts on our lives. Holding onto rage against another person weeks, months or even years after the event does not impact them, but it does impact on us. There is a Buddhist saying that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else, but the person holding the coal is the one who gets burned. When we hold onto anger we continue to hurt ourselves.
When we write about something which has emotional meaning for us, we improve our working memory for days and even weeks, and even more crucially, it helps us to break the pattern of going over the same event with the same thoughts (what psychologists call perseverative cognition).
Writing also helps us to sleep better. The NHS knows this. In its’ advice on managing stress, it advises people to write down worries for the next day before going to bed. The aim is to acknowledge the concern but without the emotions and thoughts attached to them, invading our sleep pattern, so that we are not waking in the night with the distorted thinking that accompanies disrupted sleep.
So the evidence is strong, writing about things which are upsetting us, refusing to go away and dominating head space is a powerful way of helping yourself to better physical and mental health. It does not mean you have to write every day, even Pennebaker admits he only writes occasionally. It does mean noticing when life is throwing you a curve ball that is affecting your emotionally, and allowing yourself to write to yourself for as long as it is takes before the emotional charge of the event shifts.