James Pennebaker’s Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions

In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker explains his research on inhibition and the healing power of expressing emotions. Through his years of research, Pennebaker has found that “holding back or inhibiting our thoughts and feelings can be hard work,” which can ultimately “place people at risk for both major and minor diseases,” “while confronting our deepest thoughts and feelings can have remarkable short- and long-term health benefits” (2). Inhibition and its opposite “confrontation” are powerful because each response is connected to the human “urge to confess,” to express our thoughts and feelings in language, and to assimilate events and experiences that impact us greatly. In a simple sense, Pennebaker has found that “if you can get people to talk or write about their problems, their health improves.”

But it is not simply disclosure of traumatic experiences that improves health. As Pennebaker explains there is an important distinction between catharsis and insight. Pennebaker’s study asked participants to write about traumatic experiences or superficial topics. But among those asked to write about traumatic experiences, Pennebaker made another distinction: he asked one group to “just vent their emotions during the writing sessions”; a second group to “just write about the facts surrounding their traumas; and a third group, “to write about the facts surrounding a trauma and vent their emotions dealing with their traumas” (31). Pennebaker anticipated that the third group, those who were asked to write about facts and vent their emotions would have the most long-lasting health benefits from the practice. Pennebaker’s hypothesis was correct: while many of Pennebaker’s subjects who wrote about the facts and emotions surrounding their traumas felt much worse directly after writing about their traumas, overtime the subjects in this group experienced the greatest long-term benefits:

“People who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding a trauma evidenced an impressive drop in illness visits after the study compared with other groups. In the months before the experiment, everyone in all the groups went to the health center for illness at the same rate. After the experiment, however, the average person who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings went fewer than 0.5 times—a 50% drop in the monthly visitation rate. People who just wrote about their emotions surrounding a trauma, just about the facts of a trauma, or about superficial topics averaged visiting the health center almost 1.5 times per person” (34).

The point of Pennebaker’s findings is that those people who wrote about their experience of trauma in such a way that required them to reflect on their experiences—and not merely describe them—saw the most health benefits after the writing experiment. Therefore, Pennebaker’s study and work points to the potential health benefits not of simply writing, but of self-reflective writing that provokes insight and helps the writer assimilate and organize traumas, essentially incorporating them into ourselves after the traumatic event or experience.

While talk therapy is probably the most therapeutic option for those who have experienced severe traumas, Pennebaker’s studies suggest that writing can also be highly beneficial for healing after trauma. As Pennebaker suggests, “when people write about major upheavals they begin to organize and understand them,” which eventually allows them to “move beyond the trauma” (185).

Pennebaker also believes that writing is effective for integrating information that is not necessarily traumatic. For example, he explains how incorporating writing exercises into the first ten minutes of his classes greatly improved his students’ abilities to discuss readings and other materials in the course. “Before writing, it was impossible to get a discussion going, unless it had nothing to do with the topic,” he suggests, “but after writing, however, almost all of the students contributed interesting and insightful ideas about formerly obtuse topics” (187). He also notes that once he had instituted in-class writing assignments absenteeism dropped and student performance on written exams improved (187). This suggests that asking students to write about their materials (and about their personal responses to their materials in the form of journal, for example) greatly improves students’ ability to integrate and retain information and to think independently.

These findings are not radical, as Lev Vogtosky and Alexander R. Luria made important insights about the relationship between self-expression, writing, and learning at the beginning of the twentieth century. While many of their findings have already been well integrated into educational practice––Pennebaker cites the work of Donald Graves and Peter Elbow––it is nevertheless helpful to remember that writing can be a significant aspect of ours students’ learning processes.

How much writing do you assign in your courses? Do you assign blog posts and discussion boards on Blackboard? Do you give students writing prompts at the beginning of all of your class meetings? If you did, how might that change your pedagogy, and your students’ understanding of the course materials? I would love to know how instructors outside of English, composition, and writing studies, use writing to promote thinking and learning in their classrooms.

Of course, Pennebaker also tells us that expressing emotions can create healing after trauma, which I discussed in the first half of this post. But using these techniques in the classroom is more complicated than using writing to help students engage with and retain information, and develop independent thoughts. Therefore, in the coming weeks I would like to continue to discuss writing-for-healing and consider how Pennebaker’s practice might lend itself to a healing pedagogy. What might a writing-for-healing pedagogy or a healing pedagogy look like? In the meantime, how do you use writing in the classroom?

Let’s discuss.

 

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