The premise that keeping a journal is good for you often comes back to the seminal work of American social psychologist James Pennebaker, based at the University of Texas at Austin. In the 1980s, Pennebaker revealed that, compared with writing about a trivial topic, writing about important emotional events for a set period was linked to study participants being emotionally churned up in the short term but making fewer visits to health professionals in the six months that followed. The practice has since been linked by researchers around the world to myriad health benefits, from improving mental health to helping wounds heal faster.
Pennebaker is also aware of the issue of predicting who will benefit. “I think this is one of the biggest challenges facing the expressive writing literature,” he says. According to Pennebaker, the lack of benefit in some trials might also be a consequence of the intervention lasting for such a brief period: “Even most medical procedures take more time and also have very, very low effect sizes over weeks or months.”
But Annette Stanton, professor in health psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, is more equivocal, pointing to a study from her team that found some benefits for women with breast cancer who took up blogging, including improvement in depressive symptoms and life appreciation.
However, she also warns that benefits can be dependent on circumstances, with one of her studies finding that the impact of expressive writing was different for women who had recently received a diagnosis of breast cancer compared with those who had known their diagnosis for some time.
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