Write It Right Out – Pennybacker Exercises

The following set of notes is written by Fred R. Dooley, father of Melooley.

The following exercise is from the research and writings of James Pennybacker–who is one of my heroes, especially because of his monumental work in decreasing morbidity for individuals who have experienced traumatic events. These include ambulance workers, emergency medical technicians, fire fighters, officers of the law, and so forth. 

Some of the original studies of this writing technique was of guys who had lost their jobs & careers from large corporations such as TI, 3M, and IBM during the Central-Texas tech bust of 1987. People treated by his techniques were FAR less likely to suicide, homicide, divorce, get arrested, etc. than people from this cohort who did not receive this type of treatment. He currently is a psychology professor and practicum supervisor for counseling psychology students at UT Austin. I have paraphrased his teachings in this hand-out and all errors are my own. A.D.

Secrets hurt the keeper’s mental, physical and social health. For example, sexual trauma that occurs before the age of 18, especially when kept secret, often results in greatly-increased health problems for the rest of one’s life.

Writing about one’s trauma for 4 days in a row, for 15 minutes at a time, provides significant and lasting relief. The writer is encouraged to write about the most profoundly impactful experiences. “Write continuously, even if you repeat yourself.”

For the first day or 2, people often feel worse during and after writing, but people in studies nearly always want to continue and do complete the 4 day regimen. Afterwards, they report significant and lasting relief, and observable results, for example, they show significantly enhanced immune function and decreases in cortisol levels.

Currently, there are over 500 articles examining the effects of prescribed expressive writing upon various measures of health. Observed benefits (Not self-report!) especially include better executive function (likely as a function of better sleep), better working memory, more & more pleasant social engagement (talking / visiting / working with others) and wiser eating. 

The important factor appears to be putting together a story, NOT a “great” or “coherent” story. Studies find that writers, during the course of prescribed writing, often change pronouns and perspectives. We come up with theories and stories about our selves. These unconscious or pre-conscious assumptions and expectations are remarkably consistent and long lasting, and remarkably powerful in shaping our lives. Our self-image changes as our stories change. Writing down emotionally-relevant material is articulation, which fires up Broca’s area of the brain, which fosters organization and resolution, distance and resolve. 

The patient is asked to write about “… the issues that are bothering you the most. Write your deepest thoughts and feelings. If you can’t decide where to start, just start writing about anything and see where this takes you.” The therapist usually does not read the prescribed writing, but during a treatment session, the patient is invited to talk about what they wrote, if they wish.

Caveats!

This is a treatment for trauma resolution. However, people with various endogenous mental illnesses may experience trauma more frequently than people without these illnesses, so may benefit from prescribed writing.    

  • Prescribed diary writing appears to hurt physical health by various measures.
  • Therapeutic writing prescribed for more than 3 or 4 days, or for more than 15 minutes at a time is likely to be counterproductive, for it tends to put a person into a ruminative state, and likely will intensify or extend the ruminative state of patients already in a depressive state.
  • This type of writing does not help during a major depressive episode, but may help a person with this illness resolve trauma outside of a major episode.
  • Don’t write appreciations while doing trauma resolution exercises! 
  • No jokes!
  • Don’t write about trauma while in a good mood, however, writing appreciations while in a fairly good mood may intensify the good feelings.
  • Joke during appreciations. The ability to joke shows distance and resolve, and writing out what we appreciate and are grateful for is a different, but wonderful exercise.

           Writing by hand beats typing, but even typing significantly beats not doing therapeutic writing. Some studies show that even air writing with a finger in the dark can provide significant relief, and can help a person fall asleep.

            Therapeutic writing gives patients a tool to become their own scientist and trauma-resolution therapist, and to experiment with custom designing their treatment. For example, writing:

  • Just before bed? 
  • On first arising? 
  • Once a month? 
  • Every year for a few days before the anniversary of the traumatic event?

Rod Serling who brought us the original Twilight Zone TV show and wrote most of its episodes, was a traumatized WWII Pacific war hero and a college writing professor. He spoke about, wrote about, and taught writing as a technique for trauma resolution. He taught that even writing about imaginary traumatizing events could be healing, and could help the individual eventually towards writing personally about their own trauma.

One of the most intriguing studies about the therapeutic value of writing about trauma was conducted in Holland and studied victims of torture from several different conflicts and locales. Brief, intensive, private writing about horrible experiences is very effective in the resolution of trauma, and this does not appear to limited to particular languages or cultural background.    

Dr. Pennebacker’s more recent study is about the study of human nature as revealed in our word use, and his book The Secret Life of Pronouns is a great read. As individuals write out their trauma, it starts to resolve and the choice of words concerning their deepest thoughts and feelings often changes, for example, from using “They” to “you” to “”I”.   

Language analysis, especially regarding one’s use of pronouns is proving useful in the diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s disease, in detecting suicidal ideation and in providing early warnings re: mood shifts in people with bipolar disorders. His description of the words used by suicidal poets is especially intriguing.

Caveat, Again!

Looking this over, I realize it does not include instructions for tearing up  & composting or trashing or otherwise getting rid of the notes soon after they are written. This is important! The notes are to be gotten rid of, NOT kept to reread or to be found by others.

Notes &  synopsis by Fred Dooley, for friends and colleagues and to recognize Dr. Pennybacker’s wonderful work.  

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