Review on studies on the power of the written word by our friend and collaborator Philippe De Denechin, who shares with us these notes on the power of expressive writing. At Resicare, we consider the arts as tools for resilience and mental health. So, here we go:
Reflections on the power of the written word :
Early research on expressive writing : James W. Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, recommended writing about personal events, especially those that have generated high doses of stress or discomfort.
“When people have the opportunity to write about emotionally charged events, they often see an improvement in their health,” he says. “They go to the doctor less often. Their immune functions have changed. If they are students, their academic performance improves,
According to Pennebaker (1989), there is a physiological preservation process of inhibiting cognitions, emotions and behaviours related to painful experiences; this inhibition is believed to be a stressor leading to psychosomatic manifestations that can lead to long-term health deterioration. Putting these experiences into written words would be a way to remove inhibition, which would logically explain the beneficial impact on health.
He did an experiment with 2 groups of students. For 20 minutes, one of them had to write about his greatest traumas, and the other had to write about ordinary things.
As a result, the first group had their immune system strengthened and their physical well-being increased! James W. Pennebaker is at the origin of expressive writing. Subsequently, other studies confirmed the therapeutic nature of writing.
Other Interesting Experiences
-The Journal of the American Medical Association states that the act of writing interacts with physical suffering. A panel of 300 patients with arthritis and asthma were selected. The challenge: Write about your pain for 20 minutes a day, describe the most difficult moment(s) of your life.
Results: Significant. After 4 months, less medication, less visits, fewer symptoms, milder symptoms.
-The closer the theme touches the individual, in his daily experience, the more beneficial the expressive writing will be.
Sloan and Marx (2004) prove that repeated exposure to emotions and thoughts related to the difficult experience, as implied by the paradigm of expressive writing, would lead to desensitization to these emotions, which would itself lead to an improvement in the health observed.
The main thing would not lie in the theme itself, but in the fact that it leads the individual to express himself. Thus, by asking the individual to relate someone else’s experience as if it were his or her own, the health outcomes collected would be lower than those resulting from narrating an experience in which the subject was the real protagonist.
-In 2013, a team of New Zealand doctors tried the experiment: 49 healthy adults, aged 64 to 97, were invited to write for about 20 minutes, 3 days a week, about their daily lives or the problems affecting them.
After two weeks of arrest, they all had a slight incision in their arms, and healing was observed over the next 21 days. On Day 11, 76% of the writers had healed, compared to 42% of the patients who did not participate in the writing sessions.
The explanation would lie in the hormone known as cortisol, which releases energy from the body’s reserves. However, it also delays healing, and strong or disturbing emotions generate an overproduction of this hormone. On the other hand, writing, because it promotes the relativization of an event, would control its production.
-Writing about painful experiences allows us to distance ourselves from these events
The more recent the theme is in the individual’s experience, the more expressive writing will have a curative impact, because a recent problem is less likely to have been solved.
The researchers assume that “self-writing” promotes a form of individual and social disinhibition. Writing makes it possible to put words on the emotions felt and modifies working memory. “These effects therefore remain for the moment a mystery¨.
-Study on expressive writing (from a thesis in speech therapy) : https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00421149/document
-Several American researchers have worked on its benefits for psychological health and all have shown that expressive writing improves self-awareness and acceptance, but also fights against ruminations, invasive negative thoughts, anxiety and avoidance strategies (i.e. those actions we put in place to escape stressors and which can considerably complicate our lives).
-Thus, in terms of physical health, researchers found that the subjects tested had less frequent visits to the doctor (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; King, 2002), fewer days in hospital (Norman et al., 2004), better blood pressure (Davidson et al., 2002), better functioning of the immune system (Petrie et al., 2004), etc. A 2014 study by Cohen et al. reported that patients with kidney carcinoma showed a decrease in symptoms, better overall physical functioning and less exhaustion compared to other patients who did not have expressive writing.
-From a psychological point of view, the use of expressive writing would have resulted in a decrease in sleep disorders (Harvey and Farrell, 2003), a reduction in intrusions and avoidance symptoms in post-traumatic stress (Klein and Boals, 2001), an improvement in mood and emotional state (Paéz et al, 1999 Mackenzie et al., 2008), an improvement in anxiety and depression symptoms (Koopman et al., 2005), etc.
-Finally, progress has been made in terms of social-behavioural functioning. Thus, the link has been established between expressive writing and a decrease in work absenteeism (Pennebaker and Francis, 1992), a faster return to work (Spera et al., 1994), an improvement in working memory (Klein and Boals, 2001), or better social integration (Pennebaker and Graybeal, 2001).
– For A. Héril and D. Mégrier, who conducted writing workshops with patients hospitalized in psychiatric wards, the experience enabled these patients to “regain self-confidence, by restoring a value to the communication that has been broken. “(Writing Workshops for Adult Education, 2000).