Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Healing Power Of Writing

September 17, 2001

Language is a powerful medium for change. It is through language we can alter self-concept. We come to know our motives, goals, thoughts, and feelings better by talking or writing about emotional or personal issues.

For the past 15 years psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin has been researching how writing or talking about emotionally upsetting experiences can affect psychological or physical well-being. He has a book on his research, "Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions."

Pennebaker would ask people to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings for 15-20 minutes a day for three to four consecutive days. Other people were asked to write about superficial topics.

Months later, the people who wrote about their traumatic experiences had fewer physician visits for illness. Writing about trauma was subsequently shown to affect immune function, hormonal activity and other physiological indicators of stress and disease. After writing about emotional topics, students got better grades and unemployed workers secured new jobs at a faster rate. This research has been replicated in Europe, North America and Asia, across social classes and personality types.

Men benefit more than women as do people high with traits of hostility. The best example of its usefulness has been with people who have experienced trauma and have had difficulty talking about it. Writing about emotionally traumatic experiences changes the way people think about the events. It reduces the frequency and/or impact of intrusive thoughts.

Computer analysis. Pennebaker and his associate, Anna Graybeal, use a computer program to measure how language is used in expressive writing. It is called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count or LIWC. It counts the percentage of words in various categories such as emotion words, (happy, sad, angry, joyful, etc.), cognitive words (realize, think, understand, etc.) and up to 65 or 75 additional categories.

Using this tool, Pennebaker has analyzed people’s written language in a variety of situations to see how writing emotional topics influences people’s thinking and how they relate to others. His research shows an increase in causal words (because, cause, reason) and insight words (realize, know, understand) result in greater health improvements.

Why writing helps. People who write about their trauma experiences benefit by gaining a greater understanding of the event. Secondly, as they share their experiences with others, it alerts them to their psychological state and they stay socially connected. By not sharing a traumatic experience with friends, people are more likely to live in a more lonely, detached state. By initially writing down the experience, people process the event, develop greater coherence and then are more willing and likely to describe the impact of the event to others.

Pronouns are revealing. Pennebaker just completed an analysis of how the use of pronouns can be revealing about human nature. His analysis shows that patterns of pronoun use predict long term health and also reflect personality styles.

The use of pronouns such as "we," "us," and "our" is used by people who are female, older, politically conservative, family-oriented, religious, anti-intellectual and group-oriented. They use less alcohol and smoke less.

The use of first person singular pronouns such as "I", "me" and "my" is used commonly by younger people, liberals, teen-age girls, risk-takers, etc. It predicts depression, illness and visits to a health center. First person pronouns are also related to dominance in a relationship whereas a relationship among equals or friends is characterized by "we," "us" and "ours."

Suicidal poetry when compared with non-suicidal poetry contained much more first person pronoun use and portrays the authors as self-absorbed, detached, and estranged from other people. First person pronoun use is prevalent when people are telling the truth. They are taking ownership or responsibility in a direct personal way.

Pronouns and trauma. First person pronouns also are used during times of personal upheaval or crises. When people are recovering and compensating well, they shift to the plural pronouns. This is also true during culturally shared traumas as war, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the death of Princess Diana.

Pennebaker compared text of ten press conferences of New York mayor Rudolf Guiliani before and after his personal crisis with prostate cancer, the disclosure of his affair and dropping out of the New York Senate race. He used first singular pronouns during his time of crisis. Then, as he dealt with his crisis, he mellowed. The press was amazed at what a "nice guy" he had become. His pronoun use shifted from singular to plural. He used less big words, used more positive emotional imagery in his speeches and increased in the clarity of his ideas. Then, as more time passed, he returned to his pre-crisis manner of speaking.

Further studies in Pennebaker’s lab showed that the more flexible people are in their use of pronouns, the more he could predict improvement in health. By analyzing people’s language, he can judge on whether people are stuck or not. Pennebaker even joked about starting "pronoun therapy."

Historical analysis. He feels this linguistic analysis can be used to analyze historical writing and political figures in the past. He compared the early works of the great authors in English language versus their later works and found a consistent shift from first person pronouns to plural pronouns as they aged and had a more seasoned perspective on life.