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The Healing Power of the Written Word

• July 17, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: AR IMAGES/SHUTTERSTOCK)

A new study finds seniors’ wounds heal faster if they’ve unburdened themselves through expressive writing.

For anyone still doubting the notion that our emotions—and whether we express or repress them—impact our physical health, a new study from New Zealand should settle the matter. It reports that the physical wounds of healthy seniors healed more quickly if they wrote about their most traumatic experiences.

This confirms the results of a 2010 study, and extends those findings to cover older adults—a group that is prone to suffer wounds (as from surgery), and one with less access to other ways of lowering tension (such as exercise).

Even if they weren’t consciously aware of feeling more positive, expressive writing appears to have triggered some sort of bodily reaction that hastened recovery.

Writing in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, a research team led by the University of Auckland’s Elizabeth Broadbent describes a study featuring 49 healthy adults ranging in age from 64 to 97. They were assigned to write for 20 minutes per day for three consecutive days.

Half were asked to “write about the most traumatic/upsetting experience in their life, delving into their deepest thoughts, feelings, and emotions about the event, ideally not previously shared with others.” The others were asked to “write about their daily activities for tomorrow, without mentioning emotions, opinions or beliefs.”

Two weeks later, all participants received a standard 4mm skin biopsy on their inner arm. The resultant wounds were photographed regularly over the following days to determine the rate at which they healed.

On the 11th day after the biopsy, the wounds were completely healed on 76.2 percent of those who had done the expressive writing. That was true of only 42.1 percent of those who had written about everyday activities.

“The biological and psychological mechanisms behind this effect remain unclear,” the researchers write, noting that those who had done the expressive writing did not report lower stress levels or fewer depressive symptoms than those in the control group.

Even if they weren’t consciously aware of feeling more relaxed or positive, however, the expressive writing appears to have triggered some sort of bodily reaction—presumably involving their immune systems—that hastened their recovery.

Psychologists often talk of healing emotional wounds. This study provides additional evidence that implementing their insights can help heal physical ones as well.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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