Can Writing help?
“Sometimes when you are writing, you say exactly what you need to hear.”
There are many people who suffer from physical and psychological issues relating to stress. 17% of Canadians aged 15 or older report having a need for mental health care (Sunderland & Findlay, 2013). Mental health is the number one cause of disability claims in Canada (The Mental Health Commission of Canada).
All forms of psychotherapy (from psychoanalysis to behavioural and cognitive therapies) have been shown to reduce distress and to promote physical and psychological wellbeing. (Mumford, Schlesinger, & Glass, 1983; Sobel, 1995). However, it is very difficult to get publicly funded psychotherapy, as wait lists are long, and privately funded treatment is not an accessible and affordable option for many people.
Drug therapies are quick and affordable, but they may not be as safe as previously thought. For example, antidepressants are taken by 1 in 10 Americans aged 12 and over to address a variety of mental health issues (Pratt, Brody, & Gu, 2011). However, studies are showing that using antidepressants can have adverse effects, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular events and death (Almeida, Alfonso, Hankey, & Flicker, 2010; Smoller et al., 2009; Coupland et al., 2011).
Other Options (Expressive Writing)
Studies show that disclosing thoughts and feelings about a negative event or a difficult personal problem in writing has positive implications for physical and mental health (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; for a meta-analysis of the outcomes of EW, please see Fratarolli et al., 2006).
-drops in physician visits (Cameron & Nicholls, 1996; Greenberg & Stone, 1992; Greenberg, Wortman & Stone, 1996; Francis & Pennebaker, 1992; Pennebaker, Colder, & Sharp, 1990)
-boost immune function (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988; Petrie, Booth, Pennebaker, Davison, & Thomas, 1995; Christensen et al., 1996) -less physical pain (Greenberg & Stone, 1992; Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; Richards et al., 1995)
-less days absent from work (Francis & Pennebaker, 1992) -even reduced alcohol intake, although changes in self-reported health behaviours aren’t always consistent (no reduced smoking or increased exercise though) (discussed in Pennebaker, 1997)
-improvements in mood over time (Smyth, 1996; Pascual-Leone et al., 2016)
-less distress (Greenberg & Stone, 1992; Greenberg et al., 1996; Murray & Segal, 1994; Spera et al., 1994)
Although the literature shows general improvements in various health outcomes related to EW, there are gaps in the literature and inconsistencies, as well as places where we need more research to understand the mechanisms behind how EW works.
Some published studies on the benefits of expressive writing:
Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. 1997 Pennebaker Psychological Science, 8, 162-166. Expressive Writing and Coping with Job Loss Stefanie P. Spera, Eric D. Buhrfeind and James W. Pennebaker 1994 Academy of Management Journal, 37, 722-733
Expressive writing in psychotherapy: A tool to promote and track therapeutic change. Cummings, Jorden A.; Hayes, Adele M.; Saint, D. Sebastian; Park, Jeff – Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 45(5), Oct 2014, 378-386
Expressive writing in a clinical setting. The Independent Practitioner, 30, 23-25. 2010 Pennebaker