Writing for your health and why the words you choose matter

Aug 26, 2017

You can exercise for your health, practice mindfulness or eat a balanced diet -- but have you considered writing for your health? Expressive writing has a host of benefits and we’re going to cover them this week with our guest Dr. James Pennebaker.

Pennebaker is a psychologist with 10 books and over 300 scientific articles to his credit. He’s the regents professor of psychology and executive director of Project 2021 at the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker’s most recent title is “Opening Up by Writing it Down.”

Pennebaker came to the conclusion that expressive writing may be beneficial when he started noticing a correlation.

“I had discovered that people who had major upheavals in their life and who kept them secret were more likely to have health problems than people who talked about their problems,” he says.

After some initial studies Pennebaker found many health benefits to expressive writing, in this case practiced for 15 minutes a day for four days in a row:

  • less visits to the doctor
  • positive immune system changes

“It doesn’t need to be a trauma, it could be just awareness that you’re not happy in life,” he says.

Putting it all together

Some of us talk to others when we’ve had a traumatic experience or even a less serious stressful one, but writing about the experience is different, according to our guest.

“It forces you to start to organize the event in your mind, to start putting all the pieces together,” Pennebaker says. “And that’s one of the beauties of writing. It really is one of those few times in our lives when we have the opportunity to be truly honest with ourselves.”

Pennebaker believes that expressive writing therapy and talk therapy do work in a similar way, but maintains that the social aspect of talking is sometimes a barrier for people. If you express something to your friends or even family, there is always the chance that your thought could be judged or rejected. Writing frees you of that worry.

“Set aside 15 minutes a day for three or four days. Find a place where you’re not going to be bothered and just sit down and start writing,” Pennebaker says. “…in an almost stream of consciousness way. The only rule I have is to write continuously. Don’t stop. And if you run out of things to say, just repeat what you’ve already said. But just keep going forward and write about it.”

Not all words are created equal

Pennebaker also spends time analyzing words and language, a field of study he entered because of his work in expressive writing. He actually developed a computer program to analyze writing.

“Over the years I discovered there are certain ways of writing that seem to yield better results,” Pennebaker says.

One of the things his program takes note of is when a writer’s perspective changes. Looking at a problem in different ways, Pennebaker says, is a marker of making progress.

His research has also shown that as people make progress, their story starts to change.

“The person who benefits is someone who is able to organize it differently in some way,” “There’s some sort of growth that occurs to this.”

There are often some results of trauma that can actually lead to positive life changes, according to Pennebaker. Being able to see the positive aspects of an otherwise unfortunate event is another way he sees people making progress.