Writing about emotional experiences can improve health – November 2011

I have recently come across some fascinating research by American psychologist James Pennebaker www.psy.utexas.edu/Pennebaker   For many years he and others have demonstrated that when individuals write about emotional experiences, significant physical and mental health improvements follow.  Writing programmes of 15 minutes a day for 4 days that focused on deep emotions had health outcomes such as reduced visits to the doctor and better immune function.  He describes this:

‘When people write about an experience they are changing the way that experience is organised in the brain.  Usually if people haven’t talked about the experience much they haven’t tied the event to other parts of their lives.  They often don’t see how it might be related to other changes that might have occurred to them.’

This echoes a caller to BBC Radio Sussex during our 2008 project with offenders who said:  ‘It was only when I started to understand my own story and the parts others played in it, good and bad, that I could move forward.’  Pennebaker has gone on over the last 20 years to develop a computer programme called LIWC (Linguistic Enquiry and Word Count) that analyses words people use across the spectrum:

‘To my surprise the words people were writing that were important were not the content words but the invisible function words.  Words like prepositions, pronouns, articles.  The way that people constructed a story was a predicator of health improvements.’

This research is of significant interest to Company Paradiso and I’m sure to many others working with disadvantaged people.  We plan to reference this work and research in our project early next year with 16 – 24 year olds living independently at Slough Foyer. It may help participants and staff to understand changes that occur and the reasons for doing the project.  It will also influence how we approach and evaluate our work, particularly as we try to convince health and education funders of its value, and deepen our understanding as workshop leaders. 

We’d love to locate someone in an education or social psychology capacity in this country doing similar work, perhaps with a knowledge of LIWC.  Or a postgrad interested in its development.  Any contacts or ideas for partnerships please let us know.