Research on Writing and Health

So how does writing have such profound effects on physical and mental  health? James Pennebaker, based in the University of Texas has been studying the effects of writing for more than twenty years. His experiments consistently show that writing about events improves people’s health. Confronting our feelings through writing about the events of our lives helps us to rethink these events and to make better sense of them.

Twenty years of solid research has consistently shown a clear link between the use of expressive writing and improved physical and mental well being. Pennebaker has conducted studies which show that writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health including reduced visits to doctors, positive effects on blood pressure, improved liver function and immune system functioning.

Studies have shown that writing can lead to significant improvement in lung function in asthma sufferers, improved immune response in glandular fever, decreased admission rates in cystic fibrosis and improvements in joint stiffness in rheumatoid arthritis. Writing improves student grades, memory and sport performance and reduces absenteeism from work. Studies have also found improved psychological well being and a reduction in levels of depression.

So how does writing in a spiral notebook lead to such good health outcomes? We have always told stories in some way or another, right back to the cave drawings. Constructing stories is a natural human process that helps us to understand our experience and ourselves. Writing helps us to reintegrate our experiences. We are able to tell our own story and making sense of our experience really helps. It allows us organize and remember events in a coherent fashion, while integrating our thoughts and feelings about these events even if the event was a very traumatic one. Writing gives us a sense of predictability and control over our lives.

In recent years, the two fields of Arts and Health gradually have forged significant and exciting links as health practitioners have realised the profound impact of poetry, writing and the visual arts on health. Therapeutic Writing has come to be used in a wide variety of settings, in hospitals, clinics, cancer support centres and many other health service settings.

Gillie Bolton has written very extensively on the research and practice of therapeutic writing in a very wide variety of settings and her books are a huge resource for anyone starting to work in this field.