Dr. James Pennebaker: Opening Up
Writing for Health
Dr. James Pennebaker, who goes by the name of Jamie, has written extensively on the physical and mental health benefits of expressive/ therapeutic writing. In his research he found that people who came to the research lab and wrote about their innermost feelings and traumatic experiences were healthier and saw their doctor less regularly in the following two years than a control group who came to the research lab and wrote about superficial topics. Talking therapies have been prescribed for various mental health issues for many years, but Jamie's research was able to show that writing about our problems could also be a viable source of support and healing in difficult times.
Arranging to meet
When I first started looking into the emotional benefits of reading and writing, Jamie’s name appeared frequently as one of the leading academics in this field. His research helped to establish the theoretical foundations for The Story Project and the work we do to help students express themselves through writing. Therefore, when he gave a positive reply to my email requesting a meeting about my research, I was very excited to have the opportunity to meet with such a highly respected academic in the field..
Meeting Jamie gave me a chance to discuss the work of The Story Project and discover if the benefits seen in his expressive writing experiments could be reproduced within a classroom setting. The first interesting point of discussion was the point of confidentiality. Jamie is very passionate about the fact that for expressive writing to be therapeutically beneficial it needs to be confidential, as people will change their style of writing to censor controversial details or to please their reader if they think their writing will be read.
This is an interesting point as a lot of the programmes I have visited have had positive results through participants sharing their writing/stories with an audience. However, there is a distinction between the types of benefits that come from writing for others and from writing for yourself. Writing for others has been shown at other programmes to improve confidence and understanding between people. However, to use writing as a way to truly understand yourself and voice inhibited thoughts it is important that people do not have the pressure of an audience involved.
As therapeutic writing is private, Jamie was cautious about how this type of writing could support a young person academically as therapeutic writing does not need to be technically accurate or interesting. Sometimes what appears the least ‘interesting’ piece of writing could be the most therapeutic, because that person has never written it before, whereas a really ‘interesting’ piece of writing may not be as beneficial as it may be embellished or have been told to please the reader.
Shaping a Story
Although technical skill is not a requisite of therapeutic writing, Jamie was interested in our discussion of whether giving a young person the skills of good storytelling story could help them have a more therapeutic experience when writing. When he carried out his expressive writing experiment, it was evident that people who wrote about the same experience a number of times, started to shape the experience into a story.
The more the person wrote, the more concise the story became and a valid start, middle and end started to appear. As the traumatic experience became more of a story, the writer felt more relieved as they were able to cope more with the memory of the event. Therefore, a possible hypothesis would be that teaching young people how to construct stories would help them manage their own experiences as they could make sense of them by putting them into well constructed stories. However, research would need to be done to prove this.
One idea that Jamie and I discussed that would allow students to keep their stories confidential and develop academic skills while still expressing their feelings was the idea that students could write expressively but through an alias or metaphor. Jamie brought up Melanie Greenburgh’s research that found that writing about someone else’s trauma could have the same therapeutic benefits as writing about your own trauma. Simply expressing the emotions that are related to trauma is what is beneficial; these emotions don’t have to be directly about the author, as the author will integrate their own experiences naturally into the writing.
This could be very interesting regarding encouraging young people to write about their emotions, because if they were writing about a situation that is not directly related to them, this would mean fewer issues of confidentiality and worries about editing.
Jamie and I both felt enthusiastic about the potential of trying this with a group of students and Jamie explained that the only way to know whether it would be effective is to experiment. As Jamie is coming at this issue from a scientist’s point of view, he explained that he is very keen for all theories to be experimented.
Measuring the Impact
However, he explained that all experiments need to be measured with a form of hard evidence. His research into expressive writing was ground-breaking because it was backed with hard evidence: he was able to prove the physical benefit of writing through measuring doctor appointment visits.
This evidence is harder to dispute than if he had used a self-esteem questionnaire as he explains that these can be inaccurate due to their subjectivity. Instead he suggested that appropriate measures for the success of programmes such as The Story Project would be grades, attendance at school and behaviour/engagement in the classroom. Although these are harder to measure, I can see that they would be respected as indicators of change.
After meeting with Jamie, I felt sufficiently challenged and reassured. He suggested a number of articles and academics that I should follow up with in the UK and I feel excited to start implementing some of the ideas we discussed. Also, for the first time in a long time or ever, I feel extremely compelled to collect and measure a lot of data.