Expression Helps Banish Depression

by Susan Lynn Reynolds

This article was originally published in Live It magazine in May 2006.

In the mid 1980s, James Pennebaker, a professor in Texas, made a curious discovery.
In a research experiment, he asked one group of students to write about a traumatic event in their lives. Students in the other group were assigned a superficial topic to write about. Both groups wrote for 20 minutes a day for four days. The work was anonymous and confidential. Pennebaker then tracked the physical health of the students through the next four months.

The group that had written about significant traumas in their lives made 43 per cent fewer visits to the doctor. Since those first experiments, Pennebaker and other researchers have continued to expand and deepen the research into the therapeutic value of writing. The results show that writing about emotional topics is associated with enhancement of the functioning of the immune system, lower blood pressure, better lung function among asthma patients, lower pain and disease severity among patients with arthritis, higher white blood cell counts among AIDS patients, and less sleep disruption among patients with metastatic cancers, to name a few of the studies that have been conducted.

Moving from the realm of physical health to mental health, writing about emotional issues has also been found to be helpful in a wide variety of mental disorders, particularly depression.

Researchers and clinicians alike are excited by the robust findings associated with emotional writing, but they are puzzled as to the cause. The original research came about because of research into the effects of having endured traumatic life events such as death of spouses, natural disasters, sexual abuse, divorce, physical abuse, or involvement in the Holocaust.

Findings showed that people who had been through these events were likely to become depressed or ill, and to die of heart disease and cancer at higher rates than a non-traumatized population. However, the researchers found something even more striking: those people who had such experiences and kept them secret were at a much higher risk for illness than those who talked about them.

Since that initial experiment, Dr. Pennebaker has tried many different variations on the instructions. The findings show that the important part of this process is the expression of the experience in words.

With one experiment, he had one group of participants write with pen and ink and another group wrote on ‘Magic Slates’ (boards with a waxy black substance on the bottom and a gray sheet of plastic on top). When the second group finished writing, they lifted the plastic and their words were erased. The health benefits for both groups were the same.

In another experiment, participants sat alone in a room before a shower curtain and spoke of their unhappy experiences. There was no one behind the shower curtain, no one listening; the words evaporated into the empty air, but once again the physical and health benefits were significant, even though the expression evaporated into thin air.

People can feel self-conscious about talking aloud to themselves, however. Most people are familiar and comfortable with the experience of sitting alone and writing their thoughts on paper. Researchers are still speculating on and investigating why this kind of intervention works. But the important thing for the rest of us to know is that it does work, and that if we have been carrying the memory of a negative experience within us that we have never shared, we can improve our mental and physical health and attain some measure of peace simply by getting it down on paper.
For guidelines on how to do expressive writing for mental and physical health benefit, please click on “Tips” below.

Tips for Expressive Writing

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In the summer of 2013 I was invited to do a TEDtalk on “Shining the light on our Changing Communities”. I talked about the therapeutic writing program I do with incarcerated women. You can view the talk here.

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