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Writing to Reframe a Difficult Life Event

Posted on Jan 7, 2007 by

I’ve written here before about the research begun by James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas. In 1983 he asked a question that has more or less framed the field of writing and health: Can writing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings about a difficult life event result in fewer illness visits to a health clinic? The answer to that question turned out to be yes—writing can influence health visits. And in the years since, the data has been fairly consistent: expressive writing about difficult life circumstances leads to improved health outcomes.

Fifteen years after Pennebaker’s groundbreaking study, Laura King, a researcher at the University of Missouri, asked a new question–a series of questions actually–that moved the research in a bit of a different direction. Her questions:
What other kinds of writing might be healing?
Does writing, for instance, have to be painful in order to heal?
What about writing that focuses on the good part?
Might that kind of writing be healing as well?

Research had already shown that writing about mundane topics was not especially healing. For instance, in Pennebaker’s first study, one group of students was instructed to describe their dorm room, a topic chosen specifically because of its lack of emotional freight. And, though it’s possible that, for some students at least, the dorm room did strike a meaningful chord, as a group, and as predicted, those students who wrote about their posters and rugs and lamps did not show changes in health outcome.

But what about topics that are neither painful nor mundane? What about topics that carry a more pleasant emotional charge? What health effects might writing about those topics have?

Laura King asked a group of volunteers to reframe a difficult life event by writing for twenty minutes on four consecutive days on the perceived benefits of this difficult life event. Volunteers were instructed to consider a traumatic event that they had experienced and then “focus on the positive aspects of the experience. . . write about how you have changed or grown as a person as a result of the experience.” When King and her associates analyzed the results they found that the health benefits for this group were identical to those for the group that had written their deepest thoughts and feelings about a trauma. Both groups benefited equally.

Perhaps this finding doesn’t surprise you. Perhaps, in hindsight, it even feels like common sense. But, after fifteen years of research on writing about trouble, it introduced a new wrinkle into the research in expressive writing and health. It opened the door to a possibility that many people had perhaps long suspected: that a vast array of different kinds of writing might be healing. Writing about the difficult part is healing. Writing about the good part is healing too. Not either or. But both and.

[The source for this brief piece is The Writing Cure, edited by Stephen Lepore and Joshua Smyth, and especially Chapter 7, “Gain Without Pain? Expressive Writing and Self-Regulation,” contributed by Laura King.]