Healing words

One of my favorite recurring themes is the power that language has over our cognition. Lots of research has been devoted to words’ healing powers, and today I’m thinking about that because I turned to writing, as I often do, as a way to cope with my own inner turmoil.

In empirical studies, participants who write about negative events tend to have fewer negative feelings after the event than those who don’t write or who write about something irrelevant. And when I think about the most stereotypical demographic of diary writers, I think about middle school girls, who are often bursting with angst and turn to writing as an outlet.

Even when I look back on my own journals, which I’ve been keeping since I learned to write (though the spelling in my first few may suggest that I hadn’t quite learned yet), it sort of seems like my life has been one drama-filled roller coaster ride. On the contrary, my life is quite steady. If it were a roller coaster, it would be one of those for kids ages 5 and under, whose hills and valleys are barely existent. But at the end of a fine day in which I went about my routine and nothing notable happened, I don’t have the desire to write. I’m drawn to my journal during times of stress, times in which I’m trying to make sense of what’s going on in my world, ameliorate some situation, or put an event behind me. Subconsciously, it seems, journal-keepers must know the therapeutic power of their words.

A page from my second grade journal. On this day, I was very excited because my teacher, whom I adored, had been sick and absent for a few weeks, and this was the day she came back.
A page from my second grade journal. On this day, I was very excited because my teacher, whom I adored, had been sick and absent for a few weeks, and this was the day she came back.

Recently, one study reported that writing about traumatic events may also have a physically therapeutic effect. All participants gave small skin biopsies that left a wound on their arm, and their wounds were photographed every 3-5 days until they were healed, and all had a writing task that they completed daily. Seventy-six percent of the participants who wrote about traumatic events were completely healed after 11 days, while only 42% of the participants who wrote about their plans for the next day were healed. While it’s only one of many studies that shows a link between state of mind and physical health, the fact that writing can produce such a measurable healing effect is pretty neat.

This is also interesting in the context of another article that talks about the use of diaries in European ICUs. Many patients, especially in England, are given diaries to keep while in the hospital, and those who are unable to do so often have family members who keep it for them. Not only do these diaries help people piece together their often blurred hospital experiences after the fact, but they also seem to help reduce the emotional stress that might linger after an experience in the ICU.

Since so many studies focus writing’s potential to help purge negative emotions, I wonder what the possible effects of writing about positive events and feelings might be…

2 thoughts on “Healing words

  1. Love the 2nd grade journal entry! I’ve kept consistent journals since kindergarten, and sometimes it’s a little funny/embarrassing to look back at them. Particularly in middle and high school I would be freaking out about things that, in retrospect, didn’t matter at all (I spilled perhaps too much ink over my parents’ refusal to let me attend a prom after party in NYC as 15 year old, for example). But as a tween and teenager, writing about the little things that seemed to matter so, SO much helped me get through them. I think writing is definitely therapeutic. Unfortunately I have this sense that keeping a diary is become a more and more outmoded thing to do as we all spend an increasing amount of time on the web.

    1. I have that same feeling. I wonder if blogs, Tweets, and Facebook statuses are increasingly taking over the place of a tangible journal. While they could also have the same therapeutic effect, I think the fact that they’re not private (whereas when we write in a journal, we usually have no intention of sharing- it’s just for ourselves) might cause some of the benefit to be lost.

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