How you change your mind when you choose your words.
Inge Schilperoord | May/June 2012 Issue
Whether you’re a professional wordsmith looking to loosen a stuck pen or a diarist writing for your own eyes alone, every “free writer” knows the feeling. You stop worrying about structure, spelling or how others might interpret your words. You just get out your favorite diary or put fingers to keyboard and begin. Chasing every thought and mental image that swims through your head, you let your words carry you away.
Intuitively, we’ve known for centuries that this loose kind of writing is good for our creativity. But what we didn’t know until recently is that 15 minutes of free writing a day can help us fight cancer, high blood pressure, heart attacks and loneliness—and that autobiographical writers who use a variety of pronouns (I and me but also we and you and they) laugh more and take fewer aspirins than those who stick to the first person singular.
These are just a few examples of the dazzling range of relationships between word use, writing methods and health effects discovered by psychologist James Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns. In 30 years of groundbreaking research at the University of Texas at Austin, he’s found that the words we choose can tell us a lot about our physical and mental health that we don’t know. What’s more, changing our word choices can alter our moods.
It’s the summer of 2011, and as I cross campus for our 11:30 a.m. lunch meeting the mercury’s topped 105. It’s quiet. Even in the broad shadows of the university buildings, hardly anyone else is walking. Austinites wisely get around in air-conditioned cars. But in the Brazilian restaurant Pennebaker has chosen, a blessed chill wafts from ceiling vents.
And the professor himself—wearing light cotton pants, easily stirring a big glass of iced tea—looks strikingly cool. A Texan for most of his life, he’s used to the heat. “This is nothing,” he says, smiling. “It’ll only get hotter over the next few hours.” I’m thankful I’m staying put for a while. Pennebaker easily fills our long lunch with stories from his research career. He speaks calmly, in an unassuming and sometimes slightly ironic tone, but always with an infectious enthusiasm.
As a child and teenager, and later a student of social psychology, Pennebaker didn’t care for writing, he says. He became interested in it in the early 1980s, when he was a young researcher working on a study of the psychological causes of physical illness. He and his colleagues sought to take the broadest possible measure of the mental factors that might play a role in various diseases, from ulcers and cancer to eating disorders. So they administered a lengthy questionnaire to thousands of people. “We really wanted to know everything about them,” Pennebaker says. “What their relationship with their parents was like, their favorite food, their hobbies and if they’d experienced any sexual abuse or other traumatic events before age 17.”
One connection came to the fore over and over in the research results. What correlated most with illness weren’t traumatic experiences in themselves but keeping them secret. People who don’t talk to others about such events, it turns out, are most likely to get sick. They also get well more slowly and have weaker social relationships. The researchers also noticed that trauma was a broad concept. It’s unhealthy to suppress not just the deeply upsetting occurrences, such as sexual abuse. To a greater or lesser degree, it’s harmful to keep silent about any emotionally affecting event, including the more common ones—like hurtful arguments, marital problems or job loss.
In physiological and evolutionary terms, it’s easy to see why and how emotional episodes affect our bodies, Pennebaker says. Confrontations with danger—in other words, scary and distressing situations—put the body in a heightened state of alertness. Over human history, this has helped us to flee, fight or freeze. Our hearts beat faster, stress hormones flow and metabolic and immune functions pause, all of which frees up maximum energy for survival.
But this state of extreme readiness can’t last too long, because these adaptations take their toll: The heart pumps too fast and drives up blood pressure, and the immune system weakens. According to Pennebaker, this is what happens when we keep our emotions inside.
People need to share their experiences. They need to express their emotions and make sense of what’s going on. This reduces stress and brings the body back to its natural relaxed state. Pennebaker and his colleagues quickly did a slew of additional studies and found that people who were encouraged to talk to others about what they were going through saw positive effects such as a lower blood pressure and a drop in blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
After a while, Pennebaker wondered if sharing experiences with yourself through writing might do as much for your health as talking about them to others. To find out, he and his team divided a large group of participants in two. Each subgroup came to the university and spent 15 minutes writing for four days in a row. The first group was asked to describe objects or events that were emotionally uncharged. The second was asked to write about an emotionally significant event.
The results were encouraging. Within a month, the people in the second group were visiting the doctor less often, taking fewer aspirins, getting the flu less frequently and generally feeling better. They were functioning better too. Students got higher grades; employees took fewer sick days. Enthusiastic about the findings, Pennebaker tried the experiment on a range of other groups. He put pens in the hands of housewives and students, gastric patients and cancer sufferers, veterans and maximum-security inmates.
Time and again, people who wrote about major emotional experiences showed significant, physically measurable improvements. Writers who benefited had lower heart rates and blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels and more robust T cells, a vital part of a functioning immune system.
Pennebaker himself has often turned to writing during difficult times. When he argues with his wife or clashes with a colleague, he sometimes sits down with his laptop. “I just spend a few minutes alone with my thoughts,” he says. “I just let anything come in my head—any associations having to do with the problem, memories, ideas.” When he stops, he’s calmer, with new insight into his problems.
Writing as do-it-yourself therapy—intuitively, it makes sense. You share your bad experiences with a diary and are freed from them. But to truly benefit from writing, you have to do more than express your feelings. Pennebaker’s research shows that the relationship between writing-as-venting and better health is a lot more complicated than that. Despite the encouraging results of his studies, Pennebaker found that people differed in the ways they responded to writing. “In every study, there were some people who weren’t helped by writing at all,” he explains. He couldn’t understand it: These people were writing as enthusiastically as the others, so why wasn’t it working for them?
To find out, he expanded his research. The setup remained the same, with two groups writing for 15 minutes a day, one about everyday non-emotional events and the other about emotional issues. But this time, the researchers went beyond looking at the effects of writing and analyzed the words subjects were using.
To this end, Pennebaker developed the software program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), which counts words in particular categories. These include “negative emotion words” (angry, sad), positive ones (happy, laugh) and words indicating causality (because, reason) and forms of insight (understand, realize). LIWC can correlate the numbers of words in each of these categories—and increases and decreases in them—with particular health effects.
As you might expect, the writers who used more positive emotion words felt better and better as the study went on. But Pennebaker also found an unexpected inverse effect. There was a bell-shaped relationship between health and the number of negative emotion words people used. Writers who used few such words failed to get better—and so did those who used a lot of them.
Why was that? The people who skimped on negative words clearly weren’t in touch with their feelings, and expressing them is key to processing traumatic experiences. But it turns out a second factor is necessary too. Pennebaker calls it “accepting and finding a place for the events that have happened to you.” Sometimes you can glean life lessons from difficult situations; other times, you just need to give a name to what happened and then explore the causes and consequences.
When such understanding occurs, Pennebaker says, the negative emotions in a person’s writing decrease. So the trick is to balance expressing your emotions with gaining distance from them over time. LIWC’s analyses of the use of causal and insight words show that they are accompanied by a degree of acceptance, insight or understanding.
Subjects whose use of causal and insight words continued to increase as they wrote benefited most, Pennebaker says. That’s because causal word use indicates that a person is making a story out of the experience. “If you start to see links between events and use that to give them meaning, you’ll be able to move through the upsetting experience more effectively.” The same goes for insight words. When someone writes a sentence like “I now realize that…” or “I understand why…” it means the experience has become more comprehensible. And that brings emotional distance.
It’s logical that putting upsetting experiences into story form would be healthy, Pennebaker says. We’re naturally inclined to try to bring order to chaos. As long as a difficult event remains formless and meaningless, we’ll keep brooding over it, and the incident and accompanying feelings will keep washing over us again and again. But if we explore the causes, consequences and personal meanings of that experience and begin to give it a shape, our stress will gradually decrease. And that will free up room in our heads for new things.
This too is measurable, Pennebaker says. When a person suffers great emotional stress and ruminates about it, those thoughts take up so much room in working memory that his or her performance suffers. Scientists determine working memory capacity through tests in which they ask subjects to remember as many random numbers or letters as possible. The more emotionally stressed people are, the worse their recall. And as stress drops, recall improves. This pattern in turn correlates with objectively measured physiological stress and with the number of causal and insight words a person uses in writing.
Strikingly, Pennebaker says, not only do positive health effects accompany a rise in the use of causal and insight words, but the inverse is also true. Participants in writing experiments who rarely use words indicating consequential relationships or insights sometimes end up worse off afterward. They remain stuck in the original emotions, Pennebaker says, brooding about troubling events and never succeeding in making a story out of them. So their stress levels stay high. He can’t yet explain why some people are able to achieve distance from bad experiences through writing and others aren’t.
Pennebaker knows that, along with establishing the causes and consequences of life events, “healthy writing” has another important component. His research shows that people who benefit most from writing regularly look at problems from different perspectives. This is apparent in the number of first-person singular pronouns they use—e.g., I, me, myself, as opposed to other personal pronouns, such as we, you, he, she, they and them. The more they switch among the different pronouns, the more points of view they’re able to see things from—and the healthier they get.
According to Pennebaker, this too has to do with achieving psychological distance. “When you look at a problem from a range of different points of view, you begin to separate yourself from it. That helps you create distance from painful emotions.”
Along with its emotional and cognitive effects, healthy writing brings social benefits, Pennebaker says. If you’re less preoccupied with your problems, you can pay more attention to your friends. Your memory improves, you listen better and you’re more interested. Plus, he says, being open to your own emotions means you’re more open to other people’s. That makes for closer friendships. And that, in itself, is good for you.
Pennebaker says his research shows that even the words we use in conversation are linked to relationship success. And writing about emotional subjects, it turns out, affects not only the words we use in our journals but also the ones we use in conversation. To study this, he and his colleagues wired subjects with recording equipment—with their permission, of course—and captured random fragments of conversation. The researchers found that people who had taken part in and benefited from the writing sessions were using different words than before. The change mirrored what was observed in their journals: They had begun using more positive terms. Also, in speech as in writing, they were switching more often among types of personal pronouns (you and they as well as I and me), indicating regular shifts in perspective.
All this pointed to a more positive emotional state and less stress. And that made the subjects’ social relationships better, says Pennebaker. The people who’d been helped by the writing sessions and whose word choices had changed were more intimate with others. They experienced more pleasure in social contact and laughed more.
To become as healthy, relaxed and happy as possible, we not only need to write about emotional experiences that bother us, we need to do it in a specific way. We have to express our emotions and at the same time try to get insight into the causes and effects of our experiences. And we have to look at them from as many perspectives as possible. It sounds like a nearly insurmountable task, and one opposed to the loose way Pennebaker says we should write—“Just sit down and explore your thoughts and feelings.”
He laughs. “Yes, it’s paradoxical. There are rules. But one of them is precisely that you don’t give yourself many rules. When you’re writing, you need to focus on the issues that are bothering you. Caring about word choice, sentence structure, style or spelling is distracting.” While you’re writing, it’s essential that you’re listening honestly to your own emotions and discovering how experiences really were for you—and writing it down. “As soon as you start worrying too much about form or spelling,” Pennebaker warns, “you’re spending your energy on the wrong things.”
The trouble is that the forms of healthy writing Pennebaker discovered all take place unconsciously. Some people, for whatever reason, are more inclined to make links and change perspective than others. He and his colleagues don’t know why. So what can, say, a diarist do to benefit the most from this new knowledge?
According to Pennebaker, when you’re starting out, you should stick to a couple of rules. First, when you begin, promise yourself that you will write for at least 15 minutes for three or four days. But keeping it to 20 minutes max means you won’t have a chance to ruminate—and brooding is bad for you. Second, it’s important to write in a place where you won’t be disturbed, Pennebaker says. Third, if at the end of four days of writing you don’t feel you are making any progress or are feeling worse, then stop writing. It’s possible writing might not be the most effective therapy for you.
As you write, try to make connections, he says. “Think of yourself as a scientist studying your own mind, trying to get to the bottom of things. Constantly ask yourself questions. How does the situation I’m in now resemble situations I’ve experienced in the past? Why did I feel the same way in the past with my parents, or at my previous job? What caused that? The golden rule here is, always be 100 percent honest with yourself. You’re the only person who’s going to read it.”
Inge Schilperoord keeps three shoeboxes, an old gym bag and three moving boxes filled with journals in her attic.