Writing things down is therapeutic… except when it’s not.
That’s the conclusion from new research into the therapeutic benefit of writing.
It feels like a fair conclusion.
Time Magazine reports:
Talking about difficult experiences can be a way of easing the emotional pain of trauma, but the latest research shows that expressing emotions in words can also speed physical healing.
The study is the latest delving into the mind-body connection to suggest that expressing emotions about a traumatic experience in a coherent way may be important to not just mental but physical health as well. It showed that the calming effect of writing can cut physical wound healing time nearly in half.
I suppose that if you’re Time Magazine and you don’t employ editors you can open your article by suggesting that talking and expressing something in words are different things.
Be that as it may, previous research has shown that it might not be such a good idea to talk about a trauma. Surely, it depends on how you are talking about it, with whom, under what circumstances.
If your talk allows you to dissociate yourself from the experience, it might be helpful. If you are talking to a therapist who wants you to see the trauma as a meaningful experience, it will not.
Trauma victims suffer because their experience has made them feel isolated from their friends and family. They fear that if they tell too many people about their trauma they will be identified by it, and will be shunned by others.
In most cases a person who has suffered a trauma will profit most from social outreach that helps get his mind off of the trauma. In some cases it helps to talk about the trauma, but only if that communication is strictly private and does not involve a therapist who wants you to make the trauma a defining experience.
Time explains what happens when different types of people write about painful experiences:
It’s also possible that emotional writing is not helpful for everyone. In one study published last month, when people who typically are stoic wrote about their worst trauma, their anxiety actually increased. Those who were accustomed to being emotionally open, however, showed a drop in worry measures. That suggests that different people may have different ways of coping with traumatic events, and that writing may be an effective outlet for those who are normally more expressive, while pushing people to express feelings when they are not inclined to do so can actually increase risk for PTSD.
The experiment is interesting because they show a way to measure the effects of writing on a physiological process. Psychological effects of writing or talking cannot really be measured. The time it takes for a wound to heal can.
Here’s how the research was conducted:
Researchers led by Elizabeth Broadbent, a senior lecturer in health psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, studied 49 healthy senior citizens, aged 64 to 97. For three days, half were assigned to write for 20 minutes a day about the most traumatic event they had experienced, and were encouraged to be as open and candid as they could about exactly what they felt and thought at the time. If possible, they were also asked to share thoughts or emotions that they had never expressed to others about what they had undergone.
The other participants wrote for the same duration about their plans for the next day, avoiding mentioning their feelings, opinions or beliefs. Two weeks after the first day of writing, researchers took small skin biopsies, under local anesthesia, that left a wound on the arms of all participants. The skin tissue was used for another study.
A week later, Broadbent and her colleagues started photographing the wounds every three to five days until they were completely healed. Eleven days after the biopsy, 76% of the group that had written about trauma had fully healed while only 42% of the other group had.
The results were striking and should be taken seriously.
Time does not, however, tell us whether these writings were going to be read or evaluated by another person.
Writing about a traumatic experience for yourself and discarding the evidence is not the same as writing about it and having it distributed to a group of people.
If we think over a problem, we retain the option of keeping our thoughts to ourselves. If we write them down we retain the same option. If we speak them, we have obviously shared them.
Let’s imagine that you are writing things down, but only to benefit yourself. At the least, writing distances you from your thoughts by allowing you to look at them as though you were someone else. It also imposes a structure and an organization on your thoughts.
If you have written down thoughts about a topic that interests you, you will invariably discover that the process of writing allows your thoughts to develop in unexpected ways.
Perhaps I am only speaking for myself, but what you think you are going to say when you started writing will rarely be the conclusion you arrive at when you have finished writing.
Writing about something that is puzzling you can be a learning experience. It is highly recommended to students as a study technique. It allows you to think more clearly about the topic, to gain wisdom and knowledge. Perhaps this makes you feel that you have gained control over the problem. Then again, there might be a feeling of satisfaction that derives from the process of acquiring wisdom.
Surely, if you are instructed to write down what you are planning to do tomorrow, there will be no gain of knowledge or wisdom.