Day-to-Day Living

Expressive Writing Therapy: Lupus Benefits

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A good story can transport us to a new world. And, research suggests that writing therapy, directed writing on specific topics, can help battle the stress & symptoms of lupus.

At times, it can feel as though your brain is running wild. Many people, if not most, experience intrusive thoughts and replay troubling moments over and over in their heads. Now, research is exploring how writing can offer a respite from emotional duress and some physical symptoms of lupus.

Keeping a personal journal or diary is one of the oldest (and most used) forms of self-help in the world. In contrast to a daily calendar or appointments, a journal is a record of a person’s most meaningful thoughts and feelings.

How does this help? Researchers are exploring mechanisms within the brain. But, licensed professional counselor, and writing therapy advocate, Kathleen (Kay) Adams offers rationale in an article published in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mind-Body Medicine in 1999. She offers that journaling allows a person to, “literally [read] his or her own mind.” This relieves tension by helping the writer to “perceive experiences more clearly.”

Brief history of writing therapy

In the late 1986, James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist, published the seminal study which demonstrated the value of expressive writing. In the study, participants were asked to write about either a:

  1. Past trauma
    • Participants directed to express their deep thoughts and feelings about the trauma
  2. Neutral topic
    • Participants directed to write without revealing any emotions or opinions

Both groups wrote continuously about their topic for 15 minutes, for 4 consecutive days. However, if participants ran out of things to write about, they rewrote what they had written with different wording.

The most striking result of the study was that participants who wrote about a past trauma visited the doctor FEWER times in the following 4 months than the control group. Additionally, the researchers found short-term increases in distress and negative mood for the group that wrote about a past trauma. These results suggesting a measurable benefit of writing therapy spawned over 200 additional studies looking to replicate and further validate the findings.

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Connections to lupus

A 2016 study published in the Official Journal of the American Art Therapy Association explored the benefits of writing therapy in adults with lupus. For a full recap of the study, click here.

The results of this study validated the previous research in the field. Following 4 writing therapy sessions, the participants completed questionnaires. After 3 months, participants that completed the writing exercises reported less fatigue than controls.


Additional writing therapy research

Subsequent research has explored many topics. One focus has been on the types of writing that can trigger positive long-term responses. Additionally, there is also some support for benefit-finding writing where writers focus on the positive side of negative events.

However, much of the recent research has explored writing therapy outcomes in 3 categories:

  1. Objectively assessed outcomes
  2. Self-reported physical health outcomes
  3. Self-reported emotional health outcomes
    • Results are patient-reported. Also, they relate to psychological factors
    • There are fewer findings suggesting that writing therapy can improve self-reported emotional health as compared to physical health
    • Examples include: improved mood and affect

Additionally, in 2014, a meta-analysis of writing therapy studies on clinical populations was conducted. The meta-analysis looked at 9 expressive writing studies and found significant health benefits. But, the benefits could be attributed to physical health outcomes only. Psychological health outcomes were not significantly improved.

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Top 5 goals of expressive writing

  1. Develop an understanding of yourself and better understanding of others
  2. Release tension by expressing intense emotions
  3. Improve coping skills
  4. Positive self-esteem boost for expressing yourself and your creativity
  5. Find personal meaning in ideas or events
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