In his recent blog, our co-founder, Dan Stafura, described digital journaling as a tool in his life. Dan briefly mentioned a number of benefits that have been shown to result from regular journaling. These include health-related benefits such as reduced stress and enhanced mood and cognitive benefits such as increased self-awareness and focus.
As the resident cognitive scientist at Thrive, I thought I’d take this opportunity (and Dan’s impetus) to delve a little deeper into some studies on expressive writing and its benefits. The effects of expressive writing are relatively broad and robust, and researchers are still trying to pin down the exact mechanisms through which it works. Here, I’ll describe some research that looked at the impact of expressive writing in areas related to health and performance.
First, let’s begin with a working definition of expressive writing. Expressive writing refers to writing in which an individual describes deep thoughts and feelings surrounding a personally relevant event, topic, or area. For example, these could be a patient writing about how resilience against struggle is something they hold important, or a student writing about their fears surrounding an important test. Expressive writings often including affirmations of value that are personally-relevant, and/or draw utility connections between a person’s life and a better understanding or control of a topic.
In Dan’s blog on journaling, he mentioned that writing has been found to reduce stress. Some of the initial, seminal studies on expressive writing addressed just this.
Drawing on evidence of the negative effects of holding onto trauma, Pennebaker and colleagues (Pennebaker, 2004; Pennebaker et al., 1988; Pennebaker & Beall, 1986) examined the effects of writing about traumatic experiences on health among college students. In these studies, students in traumatic writing conditions wrote for 15-20 minutes on 4 consecutive days about a personally-relevant trauma. The students were challenged to write their deepest thoughts and feelings regarding the experience. Those in these “expressive” conditions were compared to other students who wrote about unrelated, neutral topics. Those in the expressive conditions had enhanced long-term health outcomes relative to those in the control condition, including a decreased number of trips to health centers, enhanced self-reported health, and enhanced immunological responses.
Since these initial findings, there has been a range of health-related effects associated with expressive writing. These include lowered blood pressure, enhanced liver and lung functioning, and reduced number of days in the hospital (for a review, see Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). Additionally, a number of studies have followed cancer survivors and reported reduced numbers of physical symptoms and reduced cancer-related doctor’s visits (Stanton et al., 2002). Creswell and colleagues (Creswell et al., 2007) pointed to the self-affirmations in the writings of survivors as a potential locus of the effect.
The incredible thing about all of these interventions is the simplicity and ease of implementation. Individuals are only asked to write for 10-20 minutes, 3-5 times over a few weeks or months, and the effects seen are as robust as much more expensive and involved treatments.
So, expressive writing is good for health – check! Dan’s blog also mentioned cognitive improvements associated with writing, such as increased self-awareness and focus. One mechanism by which expressive writing may work is through the relaxation of inhibitory processes. That is, our brain is a limited-capacity system. Part of the functioning that is eating up resources is our inhibition of worries, concerns, and background thoughts unrelated to tasks at hand. Expressive writing may free some of these extra resources by confronting, labeling, and organizing these thoughts and feelings.
Klein and Boals (2001) took this logic and explored the effects of expressive writing on a task that is highly dependent on on-going resources: the use of working memory. Working memory refers to the active retrieval, manipulation, and storage of information in memory. In this study, college freshmen were asked to write their deepest thoughts and feelings about coming to college or were asked to write about some factual event (as a control). Over 7 weeks, the students in the expressive group saw their working memory scores improve, while control participants did not.
Expressive writing has been explored in more practical settings, such as prior to math tests, which are some of the most fright-inspiring events in many individual’s academic lives. Math tests are a prime time for “choking,” which is a significant blocker in many individuals’ paths. Choking refers to under-performing relative to one’s ability and is familiar to most of us. In a set of studies, Ramirez and Bielock (2011) had high-school students enter a stressful test context, and either write about their fears surrounding the test or write about an unrelated topic. In both studies, students in the expressive writing condition saw their scores increase from pre- to post-test, while those in the control writing condition saw their scores decrease from pre- to post-test. This finding shows that expressive writing can impact performance in quite meaningful ways. Others have explored similar paradigms among college students and found that, for example, expressive writing lead to increased GPA in college biology (Harackiewicz et al., 2016).
To summarize, expressive writing involves writing about an event, or area of knowledge, that is personally-relevant and emotionally-impactful. The writing doesn’t have to be long or in-depth – 15 minutes will do – and it can be effective after as little as one session. Expressive writing has been shown to impact a wide range of health outcomes, such as stress, mood, immune system response, and outcome from cancer treatment. Additionally, expressive writing impacts our cognitive processes, increasing the availability of working memory and acting as a buffer against the overload of cognitive resources.
To gain some of these benefits, you only have to start journaling somewhat regularly. Make sure to connect what you are writing about to values you hold close, or to ways in which your life will improve after you perform a certain action, or learn about a new technique or topic. The more you can make the topic about you, the more impactful it will likely be.
At Thrive, we try to weave opportunities for expressive writing into many of our products and solutions. One way is through digital journaling. If you are interested in expressive writing, or just getting to know Thrive better, reach out through our contact form, or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks, and go write!
References in this blog
Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in psychiatric treatment, 11(5), 338-346. doi.org/10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Creswell, J. D., Lam, S., Stanton, A. L., Taylor, S. E., Bower, J. E., & Sherman, D. K. (2007). Does self-affirmation, cognitive processing, or discovery of meaning explain cancer-related health benefits of expressive writing?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(2), 238-250.DOI: doi.org/10.1177/0146167206294412
Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). Closing achievement gaps with a utility-value intervention: disentangling race and social class. Journal of personality and social psychology, 111(5), 745-765. doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000075
Klein, K., & Boals, A. (2001). Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 130(3), 520-533. doi.org/10.1037/0096-34188.8.131.520
Pennebaker, J. W. (2004). Theories, therapies, and taxpayers: On the complexities of the expressive writing paradigm. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(2), 138-142. doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.bph063
Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of abnormal psychology, 95(3), 274-281. doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.95.3.274
Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 56(2), 239-245. doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.56.2.239
Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. science, 331(6014), 211-213. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199427
Stanton, A. L., Danoff-Burg, S., Sworowski, L. A., Collins, C. A., Branstetter, A. D., Rodriguez-Hanley, A., … & Austenfeld, J. L. (2002). Randomized, controlled trial of written emotional expression and benefit finding in breast cancer patients. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 20(20), 4160-4168. DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2002.08.521