Over the past week or so I’ve discovered several different studies that focus on the benefits of writing. This is something I have had a hunch about for awhile because of how much writing has helped me.
Anyone who has the capacity to write should take advantage of this tool whenever they can. Both the mental and physical benefits from writing about your life, such as in a journal or a blog, are paramount to optimizing your health and well-being.
Different forms of writing have shown to serve a wide range of functions, including: improving learning, minimizing stress and anxiety, motivating in change habits, improving physical health, and even helping to cope with negative and traumatic experiences.
Writing improves learning
A research study was published in Science testing different study methods when students prepared for an exam. The students were told to read a short passage and then they were separated into three different groups. The first group studied by reading and re-reading the article, the second group studied by creating a concept map, and the third group studied by spending 10 minutes writing a free-form essay about the passage. A week later the students were given a short-answer test on what they remembered, researchers found that those who wrote essays performed the best.
Writing is an effective way to engage our minds in the material we are trying to learn. When students put down their textbooks and try recalling information in their own words, it helps solidify their understanding with greater context, rather than just regurgitating facts. Having students become more active and participatory with the curriculum can lead to a better and more practical understanding of what they aim to learn, and writing is one of the most trusted ways of doing this.
Writing relieves anxiety
Another study published in the January 14th issue of Science found that when students wrote about their anxieties before an exam they were shown to improve their grades. Researchers tested this by giving two math exams. On the first test students were told to just do their best. However, before the second test the researchers created a situation that produced stress, by saying students who performed well would receive money and that other students were depending on their performance as part of a team effort.
At this point in the experiment the participants were separated into two groups: Group 1 was given 10 minutes to write expressively about the upcoming exam and Group 2 was told to sit quietly. Researchers found that “control participants ‘choked under pressure,’ showing a 12 percent accuracy drop from pre-test to post-test, whereas students who expressed their thoughts before the high-pressure test showed a significant 5 percent math accuracy improvement.”
Researchers believe that increased anxiety and stress can take a toll on our working memory and inhibit us from using mental resources at their full capacity. By writing about our anxieties, we can alleviate these worries and free up our working memory so that we can focus more on a certain task (and therefore perform better). Beilock, who led the research in this study, said: “In fact, we think this type of writing will help people perform their best in variety of pressure-filled situations — whether it is a big presentation to a client, a speech to an audience or even a job interview.”
Writing can help us overcome traumatic experiences
Over the past 20 years there has been a growing body of research demonstrating the positive effects of writing when coping with trauma. In a 1986 study, researchers had college students write for 15 minutes on 4 consecutive days about “the most traumatic or upsetting experience” of their entire lives. They found that participants who wrote about their thoughts and feelings about these events showed benefits in both objectively assessed and self-reported health 4 months later (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986).
This writing exercise has since been duplicated in several other studies (Pennebaker, 1994, 1997a, 1997b; Smyth & Pennebaker, 1999). The exercise is usually presented to the participants as such:
“For the next 4 days, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives; to your past, your present or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or about different topics each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.
Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.”
As it turns out, this kind of rumination can have significant emotional benefits. According to different studies, expressive writing can show long-term effects in:
- Improved mood/affect. (Pennebaker et al, 1988; Páez et al, 1999)
- Psychological well-being (Park & Blumberg, 2002)
- Reduced depressive symptoms (Lepore, 1997)
- Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms (Klein & Boals, 2001)
- A decrease in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology (Schoutrop et al, 1997, 2002; Sloan & Marx, 2004a)
Researchers theorize that this kind of expressive writing can be beneficial for a couple of reasons. First, writing about traumatic events can help confront previously inhibited emotions, which can be a burden on our bodies and minds when we try to suppress or ignore these feelings. Secondly, expressive writing can lead to a more coherent narrative about past events, which can help to “reorganize and structure traumatic memories, resulting in a more adaptive internal schema.”
Writing improves physical health
Expressive writing has also shown to have some robust effects in physical health. Using a similar writing exercise as the one described above (“Typical Writing Instructions”), researchers have found some health benefits regarding:
- Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor
- Improved immune system functioning
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improved lung function
- Improved liver function
- Fewer days in hospital
Specifically, when compared to controls, expressive writing has shown to have some medical benefits for lung-functioning in those who have asthma, disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis, pain and physical health in cancer, immune response in HIV infection, hospitalizations for cystic fibrosis, pain intensity in women with chronic pelvic pain, sleep-onset latency in poor sleepers, and post-operative recovery.
Obviously, if you have a serious medical condition, you should never stop seeing a doctor or getting professional treatment. However, it’s nice to know that writing can possibly play a positive role in increasing our physical health. Try asking your doctor to see if he or she knows how expressive writing can help your condition. And, for those without serious medical conditions, writing is still a great tool for alleviating stresses in the body and improving your immune system as a whole.
Writing can improve social and behavioral outcomes
Similar to the first two sections, writing has shown to help increase academic performance, sports performance, job performance, as well as other behavioral and social interactions.
Imagine taking what we learned from the “writing and anxiety” study and then applying that to social anxiety, such as approaching a gorgeous girl (or boy), or the anxiety felt before we deliver a public speech. Expressive writing can help us alleviate some of our worries, free up our working memory, and allow us to perform better in a variety of different social situations. Through writing, we let our thoughts and feelings express themselves, and thus we can move on more easily by no longer getting so wrapped up in them.
In sports, writing can be a similar modifier when examining an athlete’s negative self-talk or performance anxiety. Adding a writing component to a player’s warm might therefore help “get their head in the game,” and sports psychologists are often trained to help athletes overcome these mental obstacles so that they can re-focus their efforts back on the actions they need to perform well and win games.
Many sports psychologists also use a performance diary to help a player keep track of their progress and goals. The same can be said for other forms of goal-making, writing a diary can help us keep our mind on track, organize our thoughts, and create an elaborate mental schema about what it takes to achieve our goals.
Exercise: Write 15 minutes a day for a week
If you don’t already write on a frequent basis then try spending 15 minutes a day writing for one whole week.
Write about any anxieties, worries, and concerns you might be experiencing. Write about any issues you are going through and how they might be overcome.
Try writing the full 15 minutes without taking a break, and then revisit some of your writings at the very end of the week. Spend the last day writing a summary of your writing experience and whether or not you experienced any benefits. If you find this to be a beneficial exercise – keep doing it!
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