BK asks, rhetorically, where would we be without our stories.
Some research suggests that getting into our stories by writing them may enhance
our capacity to heal.
The Puzzling Way That Writing About Pain Makes You Heal Faster
What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. 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. Those whose wounds healed the fastest began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. 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. Simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it also makes wounds heal faster, so perhaps it’s less to do with resolving past issues and more to do with finding a way of regulating your own emotions that makes a difference.
But now new research from New Zealand suggests it’s not essential to do the writing before you are wounded. It can work just as well if you do the writing afterwards. This opens up the possibility of using expressive writing not just when surgery is planned, but for real-life injuries which of course we can’t predict. Kavita Vedhara from the University of Nottingham and her team in New Zealand took 120 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.
We’d need to have more studies conducted with real life patients, but maybe one day when we’ve had an operation, we might be told to go home with instructions on expressive writing. As Kavita Vedhara told me in the BBC’s Health Check, the effect is “short-lived, but powerful”.
The researchers do not say so, but it is possible that people who
have difficulty writing might get similar benefits from expressing
their stories via visual arts and music.