Many studies have shown that people feel happier and healthier after writing about deeply traumatic memories. Actively confronting upsetting experiences-through writing or talking-reduces the negative effects of 'bottling things up', which can lead to long-term stress and disease. But what are the links between confronting traumatic events and long-term health? Teams of biomedical researchers led by American psychologist James W. Pennebaker have been finding out how 'verbally revealing it all' helps our immune systems to fight off infections.
Pennebaker's interest in the potential of writing therapy was sparked by conversations with government polygraph (or 'lie-detector') operators (Pennebaker et al. 1987). A criminal's heart rate and breathing are much slower immediately after a confession than before. Since then Pennebaker has been busy researching his belief that we can all feel better after confronting the past through writing.
According to Pennebaker and other researchers, the effect is not just emotional. In one of his early studies (Pennebaker et al. 1988) they found that college students had more active T-lymphocyte cells-an indication of immune system function-six weeks after writing about stressful events. First, the researchers asked healthy college students to write about either personally traumatic experiences or trivial topics, on four consecutive days. In the months afterwards, writers who revealed their particular thoughts and feelings visited the student health centre for illness much less often than any of the other writers.
The next stage was to investigate the physical links between confronting traumatic events and long-term health. In a follow-up study, another 50 healthy participants were questioned about their moods and physical symptoms. The researchers took blood samples from them before and after the four-day writing exercises. Some participants chose to write about highly personal and upsetting experiences (including loneliness, sexual conflicts, death and sexual abuse). Did such writings help them feel better? Not immediately-according to the subjective distress ratings. But their blood samples taken after the fourth day showed evidence of an enhanced immune response. Their lymphocytes (white cells that fight off bacteria and viruses) increased their reaction and sensitivity to 'invaders' more than did those of other participants who wrote about trivial things (such as their shoes or their plans for the day or a recent social event).