Why Writing Is Good For Your Health
by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.Every writer knows there is nothing better or worse for one's mental health than writing. While producing a well-crafted line of prose or poetry is an especially fulfilling aspect of our profession, nothing can frustrate more than the inability to move words out of your brain and onto the page. Those who have suffered from the latter condition won't be surprised to hear that studies suggest writers and other creative types suffer from mental illness more frequently than the rest of the population.
Don't throw down your pen yet. A recent paper published in a journal no less prestigious than the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by health care researcher Joshua Smyth and colleagues demonstrated that writing really is good for both your physical and mental health. In their study, seventy persons with arthritis and asthma were asked to write about stressful experiences, then compared to peers who wrote about non-stressful experiences. Both physician rating and objective measures of disease severity were superior for the group who wrote about stress, a condition that persisted for four months.
Smyth's research built on decades of work by another psychologist, James Pennebaker, who suggested that writing is beneficial because it enables a person to process his or her thoughts and then disclose them, a variation of the "talking cure" process Freud proposed. Unlike those inner reflections you might censor before sharing with a pricey therapist, people who write about their thoughts have the option of being as personal and private as they like.
That is, if you're not part of a research study. In an effort to understand more about how writing benefits the writer, Pennebaker and a colleague developed software that systematically evaluated written text and characterizes "healthy" writing. Using their program on the material their subjects wrote, they identified three traits that predicted better health. More frequent the use of positive emotion words like good, happy, and love were associated with better health. Surprisingly, a moderate number of negative emotion words like angry, hurt, and ugly also predicted better health. Very high or very low levels of words from either category were related to poorer health. Think of the implications of submitting our books for therapy instead of ourselves.
Pennebaker also studied another component of writing related to what he called thought process. The "thinking words" he identified fell in two categories: those that referred to casual relationships (caused, led to, reason) and those signaling insight (understand, realize). When considering the thought process component of writing, frequency of word use wasn't as important as the shift from not using many of these types of words to using them consistently over time. Pennebaker explained this by drawing an analogy to fiction, saying: "Just as we are drawn to good stories in literature or the movies, we need to construct coherent and meaningful stories for ourselves." Next time you read or write a particularly appealing piece of literature, you might to check out whether his theory holds true.
Granted, these studies were conducted in a laboratory where subjects actually had to report to a special room at a pre-assigned time and write on command (perhaps not such a bad idea for the rest of us). The work participants produced was much like a structured freewriting exercise, but the findings may still have relevance for those who consider themselves to be "real writers."
In a recent issue of Writers Ask (Glimmer Train Press), several established authors reflected on the sources of subject material for their prose and poetry. Many of them readily agreed with deCervantes' apt description: "The pen is the tongue of the mind," but admitted this could be a problem if the author hadn't worked through his or her inner demons before picking up a pen. There are other interesting beliefs about writers and the topics they write about, such as the assertion that writers operate by subjecting themselves to emotionally charged content as a way of generating motivation and energy. Then there's the school of thought that proposes writers are inherently mentally ill and writing offers a better alternative than insanity.
Consider the things you write about. Is it possible you unconsciously sneak in some inner therapy each time you turn on your computer? Creative nonfiction is a more blatant illustration of our need to disclose and make sense of certain parts of our lives. Judging by the popularity of this genre, it may be therapeutic to read as well as write. Sharing your life history can not only benefit you (the catharsis idea again) but readers in similar situations who might be searching for new ways to cope or frame their problems. Reflect on the popularity of bibliotherapy (prescribed readings) back in the 1970s and you'll recall this isn't a new idea.
If you're sold on the idea of writing as a therapy, have you ever thought about making this process even more deliberate? I've been involved in several projects that have put that idea to practical use, and have been surprised by the results. People who insist they aren't writers produce prose that is as engaging as some I've read in literary publications, and would-be poets emerge from unlikely places. Most importantly, participants in the writing therapy programs I've offered feel they do benefit from the writing, and are eager to share their insights with others.
You may think that after spending a day at the computer or notebook writing, the last thing you want to do is pick up your pen again or flip the screen back on, but if what you do best is express yourself in words, reconsider. Certain writing exercises can be a pleasant change of pace as well as a stress reliever. For example, challenge yourself to write an alpha poem (using the letters of a word to form the first word of a sentence or phrase) about a topic that obsesses you. JUST WRITE might come out something like this:
Joyfully I take
Up my pen
To produce a masterpiece
When suddenly I
Reread the page from yesterday
In a new frame of mind
The same words that thrilled me then seem
Pull out your journal and process a problem by chronicling, detail by agonizing detail, the events that came before and after it, the more dramatic the better. Write a letter you'll never send to the editor or agent who rejected you. These are just a few of the many quick exercises that can flex your mental muscle in a different way.
Even if you're not completely convinced that writing is therapeutic, the next time you're tempted to seek career counseling, ask yourself the following questions:
- What other form of communication allows me to edit until you get it right?
- What other legacy can I create that's as permanent as the written word?
- Is there anything more soothing than the feel of my fingers flying over the computer keys as if playing a piano concerto with ease?
- Is there any other non-chemical experience that allows me to enter another world as completely as literature?
- Who else in life can I control as completely as my characters?
- Where else would I get the opportunity to create happy endings, or resolve problems that seem, to the ordinary person, impossible to work out?
If you're interested in learning more about this topic, check out Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James W. Pennebaker, 1997, The Guilford Press.
**Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Medicine and health care researcher/clinician at Penn State University in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and a creative writer who is currently editing a manuscript entitled Waiting Room for the eighth and final time. Her proposal for a nonfiction book Surviving Ophelia is under consideration by several major publishers in New York City. Her website is located at cheryldellasega.com.