Write Your Story, Improve Your Health
Studies have shown that writing about yourself and your personal experiences can improve mood disorders, improve health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory. Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
In an early study on personal story editing, researchers gathered 40-college freshman who were struggling academically, were worried about grades and questioned whether they were intellectual equals to other students at their school. The students were divided into intervention groups and control groups. Students in the intervention group were given information showing that it is common for students to struggle in their first year and encourage thinking that they just needed more time to adjust.
The long-term intervention results were profound. Researchers found students prompted to change their personal stories improved their grade-point averages and were less likely to drop out over the next year than the students who received no instructions. The control group received no advice about grades, and 20 percent of the students dropped out within a year. However, in the intervention group, only 1 student, or just 5 percent, dropped out.
Another study asked married couples to write about a conflict. Half of the couples were randomly assigned to receive reappraisal intervention and half were not. This effect of the reappraisal intervention on marital quality was mediated through reductions in conflict-related distress. Among 120 couples, those who explored their problems through writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who did not write about their problems. The study demonstrated that a 21-minute writing intervention in which the participants reappraised the conflict their marriage, over time protected them against declines in marital quality.
Getting people to come to terms with who they are and where they want to go is a result of expressive writing according to James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas. He found that students who wrote for about 15 minutes every day about important personal issues, had fewer illnesses and visited the student health center less. He believes that expressive writing can help influence a positive “life course correction.”
Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and lead author of the first study said:
“These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself. Writing forces people to reconstruct whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.”
At a practical level, these findings provide a promising target for clinical interventions. At a methodological level, these findings add to the growing body of research demonstrating the power of brief, theory-based, social-psychological interventions to promote achievement, health, and well-being. There is compelling evidence that writing can benefit mental health and improve stressful situations with fresh ideals. Confronting the truth with what personally matters the most, creates the greatest opportunity for change.