Dr. James Pennebaker (on writing to heal)

DR. JAMES PENNEBAKER is Bush Professor of Liberal Arts and Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his PhD from the university in 1977, and has also worked on the faculties at the University of Virginia and Southern Methodist University. Studies by Pennebaker and his students have explored links among traumatic experiences, expressive writing, natural language use, and physical and mental health. Some of these studies reveal that short-term focused writing can benefit people dealing with a range of traumas and life transitions—results that may hold promise for memoirists exploring emotional events from their past. Pennebaker is the author of eight books and more than two hundred articles, and the recipient of numerous awards and honours. He is married to writer Ruth Pennebaker.

For almost twenty years Dr. James Pennebaker has been at the forefront of research showing that expressive writing—that is, writing about personal experience with emotional content—can lead to improvements in psychological and physical health. He has pioneered studies—the first conducted with Sandra Beall in 1983—that ask participants to write of their deepest feelings about a personal emotional upheaval for 15 or 20 minutes a day, for four consecutive days.

The long-term benefits? Everything from improved school grades to a strengthened immune system to a change in life course.

In his book Writing to Heal, Pennebaker says, “People who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.”

Pennebaker first became curious about the connection between writing and health in 1979, after helping to develop a questionnaire that focused on eating disorders. The study revealed that people with such disorders exhibited a variety of other health problems.

“As we did more research it became clear that having big secrets [about the eating disorder] was a major problem. And that led me to ask the question, ‘Well, what if you ask people to reveal their secrets, either by talking or writing?’ So that’s what we did.”

It turned out that writing about secrets had a positive effect on health, even if the writing was destroyed immediately afterwards. Later related studies showed that the benefits could be seen not only in people who had dramatic secrets such as sexual abuse, but in those dealing with such everyday stresses as job loss.

Four years earlier, Pennebaker himself had had a personal experience that illustrated the power of expressive writing, which he describes in his book Opening Up. Having married right out of college, after three years he and his wife were questioning “some of the basic assumptions of our relationship.” The result was a dark period during which Pennebaker showed a number of signs of depression. He lost his appetite, increased his drinking and smoking and started to avoid seeing friends. A month into this “social isolation” he began to write daily about his thoughts and feelings. He spent ten minutes to an hour at a time writing initially about the marriage, but gradually also about his parents, sexuality, career and even his thoughts on death.

“Each day after writing I felt fatigued but also freer,” he reported. “By the end of the week, I noticed my depression lifting. For the first time in years—perhaps ever—I had a sense of meaning and direction. I fundamentally understood my deep love for my wife and the degree to which I needed her.”

An emotional upheaval can have widespread effects, touching more facets of our lives than we might realize. Says Pennebaker: “You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are—from our financial situation, to our relationships, to our views of ourselves, to issues of life and death.” When we undergo trauma, he says, our minds work hard to process the experience, interfering with sleep, distracting us at work, and making us feel less connected with other people.

This processing requires “working memory,” which allows us to think about several things at once—an area in which expressive writers often see improvement. Even after four days of writing, many subjects are able to sleep better, and their social connections improve.

“I’ve always been impressed how people are ultimately their own best therapists,” says Pennebaker. While in traditional therapy individuals can take weeks to get to the point of saying things that are profoundly personal, writing bypasses that whole early stage of therapy and puts the writer directly in touch with his or her feelings. “Writing is a tool to help them discover what those issues are that are bothering them.”

And over the long term expressive writing can even lead to “life course correction.” Understanding the past helps us to see our future path more clearly.

Is it “normal”—or “healthy”—to cry when writing about traumatic life experiences? Across most of their studies, Pennebaker and his colleagues have found that some participants cry or tear up while writing. Many report dreaming or continually thinking about their topics over the four days of the study. But the positive long-term benefits outweighed the negatives of these initial reactions.

What gives writing its healing power, says Pennebaker, is the process of sorting out our thoughts. “Writing helps focus and organize experience,” he says. “People who are able to construct a story, to build some kind of narrative over the course of their writing, seem to benefit more than those who don’t. In other words, if on the first day of writing, people’s stories are not very structured or coherent, but over the three or four days they are able to come up with a more structured story, they seem to benefit the most.”

Another aspect of writing that’s been shown to have a positive effect is the ability to change perspective. Some of Pennebaker’s studies analyze writing over a period of days for a shift in pronoun, from “I” to “he,” “she,” or “they.” The writer may begin by talking about how he or she sees an event, but then move on to explore how others, such as family members, would have seen it. This switch among perspectives is a powerful indicator of how the writer will progress.

Pennebaker hasn’t studied memoir writing specifically, but he believes “it’s really a wonderful thing to do.” And while his studies revolve around more short-term focused writing about traumatic experiences, his findings are not inconsistent with writing done over a longer term, such as memoir writing or journalling.

He says, however, “I’m not convinced people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity.” He also cautions against writing about an event too soon after it has happened. Thus memoirists have to decide for themselves when they are ready to explore a particular past experience, and even then, should spend no more than a few days on it before moving on to a less fraught chapter of their lives. They can always loop back to the emotional event later.

And writers should let the writing lead them, rather than the other way around. “Writing,” he says, “takes people into worlds that they may not consciously have thought about. . . .”

“One thing I’ve found over and over again is when I ask people to sit down to write about an emotional upheaval—or even when I’ve done this myself, I’ve often been impressed how I think a particular problem is the problem that’s bothering me, but I’ll start writing and I’ll get bored with that topic in about three minutes—and I’ll realize that the issue is something that’s really kind of irrelevant to that.” In some studies, for example, patients with AIDS started out writing about their diagnosis, but soon changed topic and began writing about their relationship with their father or mother, or finances, “which may be related to the AIDS diagnosis but it is not the real issue. The real issue is the relationship or this financial issue.”

When writing memoir, Dr. Pennebaker told the National Association of Memoir Writers Telesummit in April 2009, the first question to ask is, Whom is this life story for? Who is the audience? “I always encourage them that the life story is for the writer only. And of course often the person has two audiences, themselves, but also their children or relatives. . . . [And sometimes] there’s real conflict because you want to come across as looking really good and noble and well-read. . . . But that gets in the way of being honest with yourself. My recommendation is: screw the audience, write for yourself.” When you’ve finished, he says, you can go back and edit and erase the parts that you don’t want other people to read. But the first step is to write the memoir for yourself, and worry about the details later.

Just start writing, he says. Instead of writing your life story from birth until today, sit down and devote a few minutes a day to writing whatever’s on your mind, perhaps limbering up by writing something that happened as recently as yesterday. “Practise being playful with writing,” he recommends.

The ability to put together a story is innate, Pennebaker believes: virtually everyone has the ability to do so. He and his colleagues have done work with maximum-security prisoners, some of whom, he says, can barely spell or string sentences together, “but when you have them write, even though the writing itself isn’t polished, they tell compelling and powerful stories. So if you sit down and just describe an experience that happened to you without thinking about an audience, you will be impressed how a story emerges.”

And if Pennebaker’s studies are any indication, your stories, if written honestly and with emotion, have the potential to clarify your thoughts about the past, improve your long-term health, and perhaps even change the course of your life.

Dr. Pennebaker’s Basic Writing Assignment:

“Over the next four days, write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. Write continuously for 20 minutes.”

For more about Dr. James Pennebaker, visit his University of Texas at Austin pages here.

Click here for Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice

Copyright 2009 Allyson Latta.

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Toronto, Ontario