Authentic Self-Expression and Health Part 3

Happiness researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of University of California at Riverside

Expressive Writing and Immune Function
Research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky found in her psychotherapy practice that those who write are happier. Adopting the creative writing exercises of psychoneuroimmunology researcher James Pennebaker, she found that, for many people, it’s much easier to authentically self-express by writing in a private journal than to do that in psychotherapy sessions. Dr. Pennebaker is the researcher who proved that when we confide to ourselves through writing, and to trusted others through conversations, there are boosts in immune cell numbers and function. His research has clarified that the key to the boost is not the catharsis of expression but simply a recognition of our deepest feelings and a healthy way to express them.

The Power of Words
Psychophysiology researcher Carmen Uhlmann wired computer keyboards to biofeedback instruments. Collaborating with Pennebaker and computer programmer Martha Francis, they were able to measure electrodermal activity and heart rate as college students wrote about various traumatic experiences in their lives. The sensors in the pads of the computer keyboard went to a separate computer that was programmed to function in harmony with the one on which the students typed. In this way, the researchers were able to get readouts of fluctuations in the electrical activity of the students’ skin on a word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase basis.

This unique biofeedback experiment allowed the researchers to determine the features of language that are related to autonomic activity, and they discovered that specific words were associated with specific physiological changes. Negative descriptors of emotion—words like scared, hate, hurt, guilt, and shame—correlated with increased autonomic arousal as measured by increased heart rate and increased electrodermal activity. Words associated with positive emotion correlated with reduced autonomic activity.

A surprising finding of this experiment was that words associated with reflection and insight and with a degree of resolution of a problem—such as understand, realize, because, and reason—also correlated with increased heart rate and electrodermal activity. Why? Most likely this is because when the students were writing about an event or problem, despite having a level of understanding, they felt authentic emotions as they wrote, and the emotions correlated with increased electrical activity. Interestingly, however, when the subjects wrote about an emotional trauma or problem over a period of several days, a diminution of autonomic activity was noted. This last finding is evidence of the power of journaling to improve state of mind, self-efficacy, and environmental mastery—which could explain the improved immune function of the participants in the Pennebaker psychoneuroimmunology studies.

Pennebaker concluded that although writing (or verbally sharing) about one’s emotional trauma or problems triggers autonomic arousal, the more we do it, the more we acquire insights into and resolution of whatever had been troubling us, and that this continued exploration leads to a calmer, more peaceful state of mind.

It was also discovered during that study that when researchers followed the subjects’ health over the following few months, tracking visits to the university medical clinic, the students who expressed negative-emotion words experienced better health than those who continually expressed positive-emotion words. Pennebaker explained this surprising finding by concluding that the users of negative-emotion words experienced a release of emotion that contributed to increased self-awareness, self-understanding, and self-appreciation, and that the improved mind-state led to improved health. The Pennebaker studies provide further evidence of the importance of authentic, emotional expression.

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