Writing about intense emotions makes us happier and healthier

Baz Luhrman’s version of The Great Gatsby begins with Nick Carraway in a psychiatric asylum, talking to who is presumably his psychiatrist or psychoanalyst (clinical psychology didn’t exist in the 1920s, nor did Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) or no doubt Carraway would be having 6 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy on the phone).

“Write it down”, says the psychiatrist, handing our narrator a clearly labelled ‘patient journal’. “Whatever brings you ease”.

Carraway dutifully does, and The Great Gatsby unfolds before us in all the sweeping and glorious technicolour we would expect from Baz Luhrman’s direction.

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This simple interchange between psychiatrist and patient is more than a filmic conceit. There is a large body of research showing that there are therapeutic benefits of writing about highly emotional experiences.

Evidence into the therapeutic effects of writing has been accumulating for about 25 years (some summarised here). Many of the studies into this have been done by J.W. Pennebaker from the USA, or by researchers who have replicated his paradigm and tweaked it to see what the ‘active ingredients’ are. Pennebaker and his colleagues get people to write about emotional issues. The basic set up is that people write for 15-30 minutes a day for 3-5 days, although more recent studies suggest spreading this out over more weeks might be even more beneficial. Writing about upsetting emotional experiences seems to produce long-term benefits in a range of indicators, compared to writing about superficial topics.

Associated physical benefits include long-term immune system benefits (shown by immune system markers), and short-term decrease in heart rate. Behavioural correlations include grade point average increasing in students and increased likelihood of returning to work after job loss and having fewer days off work in employees. Participants report feeling happier and having fewer symptoms of physical ill health. And visits to the doctor are reduced for over a year after the experiment has ended.

More recently research has suggested that writing about extremely positive emotional circumstances can also be helpful. Whether negative or positive emotional experiences, all the research seems to involve disclosing and making sense of extreme emotional experiences by using writing. This makes sense in relation to how some types of therapy are thought to work, for example by helping people to stop avoiding thinking about traumatic experiences and get them into a coherent narrative in their minds.

Why not try it? 15-30 minutes every day for three days. If you want to have a go here are the instructions from Pennebaker:

“For the next 3 days, I would like for you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about 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 very 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 on different topics each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential. Don’t worry about spelling, sentence structure or grammar. The only rule is that once you begin writing, continue to do so until your time is up.”

Good luck! And let us know how it goes…

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