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Heal Past Traumas by Writing About Them

Man's hands writing with a pen
Problem Area: 

Problem

Routine stresses and traumatic life events like a divorce make us more prone to illness.  

Solution

Writing about upsetting experiences makes us happier and healthier...

Details

James Pennebaker, a psychologist, and his colleagues randomly assigned 50 healthy college students to write for 20 minutes a day, 4 days in a row, about either the most traumatic events in their lives or mundane topics like their plans for the day. Compared to participants who wrote about daily concerns, participants who reflected on their worst times went to the doctor less often and had stronger immune systems, as indicated by blood tests measuring white blood cells’ ability to attack invading foreign agents. Even three months after the study ended, participants who wrote about the most upsetting experiences in their lives still reported being happier.

Why This Works

Writing about the most troubling parts of our pasts can be painful in the short term. But confronting our trauma and telling the story of our misery brings us closure and allows us to find meaning in our pain, which causes us to be happier and healthier in the long term.  

When This Works Best

Writing about trauma helps most when people have been bottling up their feelings and not sharing them with others. People also respond best to this intervention when they feel like they have control over how they relive their painful episodes.

Original Study

Pennebaker, J.W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239-245.

In the Media

The New York Times

CNN

See Also

Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11, 338-346.

Petrie, K., Booth, R., & Pennebaker, J. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1264-1272

Smyth, J. M. (1998). Written emotional expression. Effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 174-184.