If magazines are anything to judge by, modern society is obsessed with health. We try yoga, marathons, spinach smoothies, and protein powders all in an attempt to become healthier people. But sometimes less physical activities also improve human health. One of those activities is writing.
Researcher James W. Pennebaker explains that when writing, people “experience improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.” Researchers have also found that different types of writing result in different medical outcomes.
Expressive writing seems to be correlated with the most positive health outcomes. Expressive writing is writing about events that are stressful, traumatic, or otherwise emotionally charged. It could be about a relationship, the death of a loved one, an illness, trouble at work or something similar. In general, patients who write expressive pieces for 15-20 minutes a day for 3-5 days begin to report significant benefits and increased health results months after they have concluded the exercise.
This type of writing can help in a variety of medical cases. One study of writing in a cancer clinic found that having “expressive writing programs…for individuals with cancer is likely a worthwhile endeavor” because it results in “positive changes in thoughts and feelings related to one’s illness, and quality of life.” On a more physical level, Professor of Medicine Elizabeth Broadbent found that older adults who participated in expressive writing healed more quickly after a biopsy than those who did not. This increased healing rate may have resulted from the fact that writing lowers of levels of stress hormones like cortisol, and high levels of cortisol can impede healing. The better health results may also have stemmed from the participants’ sleep schedules; individuals who wrote expressively often slept more than those who did not. Similarly expressive writing reduced the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
In addition to the benefits of expressive writing, blogging results in positive health outcomes as well. Blogging is correlated with dopamine releases, those happy-making hormones often associated with exercise or listening to music. Neuroscientist Alice Flaherty of Harvard University studies writer’s block and hypergraphia, the uncontrollable urge to write, and has found that the same parts of the brain’s limbic system that relate to people’s appetites for food and sex also drive blogging. For many people, blogging fills a need and acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied.”
Of course writing isn’t a replacement for proper medical care and a doctor’s advice, but it often can correlate with a healthier, more peaceful life for those who do it. So the next time you are feeling stressed or under the weather, pick up a pen. Writing down how you feel may help more than you would think.
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Karen A. Baikie and Kay Wilhelm, “Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing,” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11:5 (2005): 338-346.
Nancy P. Morgan, et. al., “Implementing an Expressive Writing Study in a Cancer Clinic,” The Oncologist, 13:2 (2008): 196-204. http://theoncologist.alphamedpress.org/content/13/2/196.full.pdf+html.
Tori Rodriguez, “Writing Can Help Injuries Heal Faster,” Scientific American, 1 November 2013, Accessed 18 January 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/writing-can-help-injuries-heal-faster/.
Joshua M. Smyth, et. al., “Effects of Writing about Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction in Patients with Asthma or Rheumatoid Arthritis: Randomized Trial,” JAMA, 281:14 (1999): 1304-1309, http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/189437.
Jessica Wapner, “Blogging – It’s Good for You,” Scientific American, 1 June 2008, Accessed 18 January 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-healthy-type/.
Unknown Italian Painter, “Still Life with a Skull and Medical Book,” Wellcome Library, ca. 1766.