I’m reading Louise DeSalvo’s Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, and in chapter two (“How Writing Can Help Us Heal”), DeSalvo details the experiments of James Pennebaker, a psychologist who studied groups of students (at Southern Methodist University, where Pennebaker, and his associate, Sandra Beall, both taught), who wrote in a journal for fifteen minutes, four days in a row.
One group of students wrote about traumatic experiences, but this group was divided into three, with the following guidelines: 1) write about the trauma and the emotions, 2) just describe the trauma, and 3) write about the events and the emotions of the trauma at the same time.
Guess which group initially felt negative feelings but four months later, said they had a much more positive outlook, and six months later, showed improved health (visits to student health center dropped 50%)? You guessed it–group 3.
In DeSalvo’s words, here are Pennebaker and Beall’s findings:
to significantly improve your spirits long-term, you must endure difficult feelings initially
To improve health, we must write detailed accounts, linking feelings with events. (22)
DeSalvo offers a caveat in this chapter: If you’re going to write about trauma, be sure you’ve got support (support group, therapy, dedicated listener).