According to James W. Pennebaker and Janel D. Seagal, as stated in a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 1999, “Writing about important personal experiences in an emotional way for as little as 15 minutes over the course of three days brings about improvements in mental and physical health.”
Dr. Jeff Turpin, professor of English at UTSA, used Pennebaker’s research as inspiration for his studies regarding the benefits of writing health narratives, and has used this information with practical applications in both the classroom and workshop environment.
Pennebaker’s research consisted of students who were asked to write about an assigned topic for 15 minutes during four consecutive days. Some were asked to write about mundane subjects such as describing the room they sat in, others were asked to write about a traumatic event in their lives. They were assured that their writings would be anonymous and confidential.
The study proved beneficial for nearly all participants. ninety eight percent of the students stated that they would participate again, if given the chance, even though many cried during the process. According to Pennebaker “approximately half of the people wrote about experiences that any clinician would agree was truly traumatic.”
The real benefit was the effect on the participant’s physical health. Additional studies included groups such as inmates at maximum-security prisons, men who had been laid off from work, medical students, crime victims and chronic pain sufferers.
The study showed that participants initially were more depressed during the first two hours after writing about a traumatic event, but over a period of two weeks to 10 years, they reduced the number of visits to their physicians, reduced the number of medications they were taking, improved grade scores and found jobs sooner with higher salaries.
Writing did not appear to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or those with relatively severe depression. In a study conducted in Israel, the physical health of half of the PTSD patients worsened after writing about their traumatic events, and a large-scale study in the Netherlands of recently bereaved adults showed no signs of improved physical health.
Turpin began his research in the classroom on a whim. As students turned in the obligatory “What I did during my summer vacation” writing assignment, Turpin asked the students to take the next 15 -20 minutes and write about a traumatic event. He was astounded by the results.
Not only did the student’s grades improve but so did their writing ability and grammar. Turpin found that when students wrote about an important event in their lives, they tended to write as they spoke. People tend to “punctuate” properly when they speak. Commas were used for pauses. Exclamation points were not over used. Sentence structure was used effectively.
Turpin had his own tumultuous personal experiences this year and in dealing with them has found an avenue to restoring his own personal health. He received a phone call during the summer, asking for his involvement in the Children’s Aftercare Reentry Experience (CARE), a program offered through BCFS Health and Human Services, designed to help youth between the ages of 10-19 re-enter their local communities after living in a juvenile or residential treatment facility.
Turpin’s first inclination was to decline the invitation to work with the youth in the CARE program, thinking he had his own problems to solve, but then he looked at a souvenir he had recently picked up in Sweden; one of those compressed and “dehydrated” towels printed with a quote from Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, that read, “When you feel helpless, help someone.”
So he did. As the writing workshop began, Turpin introduced himself to the young participants in the group and told them he really didn’t care what they thought of him and that he really didn’t care about their problems. He said he was there for one purpose and that was to help himself.
With that proclamation, Sherri LeAnn slapped her hand down hard on the table in front of her and exclaimed, “It’s about time! Finally, someone who is telling the truth!”
From that point on, Turpin felt he had the group’s attention. Typically, youth in this type of environment are reluctant to write about anything, but they did as asked. In a follow-up workshop, many of the youth stated that they felt better about their situation and felt some measure of control over their own life.
During the CARE workshop Turpin posed the question, “Why write?” He then listed several reasons: writing is cheap, does not take much time out of your day, can be private or can be shared, can be done when well or ill and no talent is required.
Many authors have similar answers to the same question.
“You’ll always have the pain, so you may as well use it,” said poet Audre Lorde to Louis DeSalvo, author of “Writing as a Way of Healing.” Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple” said that writing is “a matter of necessity and that you write to save your life is really true and so far it’s been a very sturdy ladder out of the pit.” And, DeSalvo writes, “Writing has helped me heal. Writing has changed my life. Writing has saved my life.”
Pennebaker states in his research that “translating distress into language ultimately allows us to forget or, perhaps a better phrase, move beyond the experience.” The act of writing helps a person organize his or her thoughts and emotions into a rational story, which then allows for greater understanding of the event. Author Mark Doty said, “What is healing, but a shift in perspective?”
Turpin suggests the following when writing:
•Write for 20 minutes a day.
•Do not worry about grammar or spelling.
•Do not put questions in your writing about self-blame.
•Do not need to be inspired to write – just write.
•Do not need to have a plot – just write.