Tweet on Twitter Discover the hidden meanings behind what people write and say, and find out how you can use therapeutic writing to change — or even save — your own life Imagine a scenario where every email you sent — and in fact everything you said and wrote — included hidden messages. That scenario is real, according to expert Dr. James Pennebaker who recently spoke at length to Scientific American about the implications of his breakthrough work in language analytics. Pennebaker uses his therapeutic writing techniques to scrutinize not just emails but political speeches, advertisements, historical documents, blogs, and even quizzes you can take yourself to discover surprising facts regarding what your words reveal about your psychology. These secret patterns can even increase your odds of correctly guessing whether a person is lying or telling the truth.
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BBC Future investigates. I In the psychology professor James Pennebaker discovered something extraordinary, something which would inspire a generation of researchers to conduct several hundred studies. They were told to let go and to include their deepest thoughts, even if they had never shared these thoughts before. Four days running they did the same thing.
Pennebaker told me that roughly one in 20 students would end up crying, but when asked whether they wanted to continue they always did. Meanwhile a control group spent the same number of sessions writing a description of something neutral such a tree or their dorm room. Studies have shown expressive writing can reduce the amount of times people visit the doctor Credit: iStock Then he waited for six months while monitoring how often the students visited the health centre.
Remarkably, the students who had written about their secret feelings had made significantly fewer trips to the doctor in the subsequent months.
The studies that followed examined the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines. In a small study conducted in Kansas, for example, it was found that women with breast cancer experienced fewer troublesome symptoms and went for fewer cancer-related appointments in the months after doing expressive writing.
A meta-analysis by Joanne Fratarolli from the University of California Riverside does demonstrate an effect overall, but a small one. Some studies have had disappointing results, but there is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds. In these studies brave volunteers typically do some expressive writing, then some days later they are given a local anaesthetic and then a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm.
The wound is typically 4mm across and heals within a couple of weeks. This healing is monitored and again and again, and it happens faster if people have spent time beforehand writing down their secret thoughts.
Simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it could have health benefits Credit: iStock What does the act of committing words to paper do? But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing. He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions. So Pennebaker believes that the simple act of labelling your feelings and putting them into a story is somehow affecting the immune system.
But there is a curious finding which suggests something else might be going on. Does the stress cause people to release stress hormones such as cortisol, which are beneficial in the short-term and could enhance the immune system?
Or is it the improvement in mood after several days of writing that brings the benefits for immunity? So far, no one knows. You could imagine a situation where people booked in for surgery are given expressive writing instructions in the preceding weeks, but very few studies have used clinical populations with real, surgical wounds, rather than giving healthy students artificially-induced wounds. Also, it works better for some people than others, all depending on how well they engage with the process.
It can work just as well if you do the writing afterwards. Kavita Vedhara from the University of Nottingham and her team in New Zealand took healthy volunteers, and made them write about either a distressing event or how they spent the previous day.
They did this either before or after a punch biopsy on their upper arm. The people from the expressive writing group were six times more likely to have a wound that had healed within 10 days than the people in the control group. Disclaimer All content within this column is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional.
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