Did you know that writing about pain can actually have a positive effect on your immune system?
A series of studies have shown that people who take the time to write down traumatic events in their life not only feel better, but actually physically become better, too.
Studies show that writing down your pain actually has a positive effect on your immune system. Not only that, it can help with the healing process.
In the following article, we will look at the science behind how the cathartic properties of writing work, as well as some ways to help you get motivated to write.
The positive physical effects of writing on the body were first noticed by James Pennebaker in 1986, who was then the chair of the psychology department at Southern Methodist University.
Pennebaker made this startling discovery while performing a rather simple experiment involving “expressive writing.”
Pennebaker asked a number of test subjects write for fifteen minutes about the worst thing that had ever happened to them in their life.
The subjects were told to open up completely, letting out their innermost thoughts and details regarding this traumatic event. The process was difficult for many students, many of whom broke down crying.
However, students also found the process comforting, and when they were asked if they wanted to stop, always asked to be allowed to continue.
Pennebaker contrasted these students to a control group who wrote about normal things, describing their bedroom, a tree outside, or something equally bland.
He observed these students for six months. After this period of time, he observed that the students writing about something traumatic went to the doctor significantly less.
You can listen to an interview with Pennebaker here.
Pennebroker’s groundbreaking experiment opened up a new field of research called “psychoneuroimmunology,” an area of study that explores how expressive writing actually improves the functioning of our immune systems.
How It Works
How can you use writing to improve your immune system? It’s as easy as buying a journal. Write in your journal every day, and you will start feeling much stronger and better.
Many people, however, find it difficult to get motivated to start writing, so here are some tips.
1. Stream of Consciousness
Start by simply trying to describe the events that happened, and then write down your thoughts as they happen, in a stream of consciousness method. Write how you talk; don’t try to force it.
2. Keep Good Habits
Most great writers worked at the same time every day, usually the wee hours of the morning, so that they didn’t have to feel motivated to write.
Just like if you eat at the same time every day, you will no longer experience hunger, writing at the same time every day means you won’t need to feel motivated before writing.
3. Overcome Writer’s Block
We all get it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing down your thoughts or you’re a natural Shakespeare; we all get writer’s block from time to time.
Most novice writers simply walk away from pen and paper, or try to wait it out. But if we look at the creative processes of famous artists and writers, we see that may of them blasted through writer’s block in various unique ways, such as reaching for a simple cup of coffee.
One of the best options? Take a walk in nature to recharge your brain and stimulate your creativity.
4. A Shift of Perspective
In Pennebaker’s original study, he paid close attention to the correlation between the healing process and the specific language these students used when talking about themselves.
Rather than simply achieving catharsis through confessing and opening up, the data suggested that students were making sense of these events.
They began, Pennebaker observed, by speaking of these events in the first-person. However, in later sessions, these students switched from the first person into the third, suggesting that they were trying to see the bigger picture, looking at these events from a more objective, distant perspective.
5. Looking From a Distance
The great 17th philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz once said that, when we experience tragedy in life, we look at it like a painting from too close.
We cannot see the bigger picture in the fine details until we step back and look at the entire painting. These details look ugly from up close, but form a beautiful picture from a distance.
Expressive writing lets you stand further back from these events, taking the role of an observer.
Yet changing to this distant perspective isn’t just psychologically reassuring; it actually has a positive medical effect on the body.
6. Finding the Reasons
Expressive writing also works better, Pennebaker found, when the students try to make sense of the reasons behind these events.
He noticed that they frequently used words like “because,” forming causal associations and positing reasons behind these traumatic events.
According to Pennebaker, when we put these traumatic events into a narrative that tries to explore the reasons behind what happens, this act actually helps improve the immune system.
7. Writing Constantly
However, you cannot simply write these events once for the effect to work. You need to be writing them constantly, using your expressive writing to sort them out.
Most people, in fact, have said that writing about these events make them feel worst during the first day.
Thus, there is something to the constant process of churning things up that actually improves the immune system.
8. Expressive Writing Works Retroactively
Since this affects the immune system, you would think that this would work only as a preventive measure. A recent study in New Zealand showed that this is not necessarily the case, however.
The study examined patients who wrote about their pain both before and after having a punch biopsy on their arm, a wound that healed significantly faster regardless of whether they wrote before or after the event.
So even if you are currently recovering from an event, it isn’t too late to experience the healing power of expressive writing.
Expressive writing remains a promising area of research as psychologists and immunologists continue to explore the positive effects of writing on the body.
If you are suffering from pain or a trauma, or simply want to help improve your immune system, keeping a small diary or journal for writing about your pain is a great idea, as this can not only help you understand yourself better, but actually improve the physical condition of your body.
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