If you're living with a chronic illness, you're in the right place.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why Blogging is Good for You

When I was in graduate school one of the first research projects I worked on was evaluating expressive writing as a form of treatment for people living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  In case you haven't heard of this term, expressive writing  in the research world involves the use of directed writing exercises as a means to reduce the negative effects of stressful life events.  Anyone living with a chronic illness would agree that it can be a stressful life event.

May or may not be actual representation of my 1st year with Crohn's Disease.

One of the pioneers of the research on expressive writing is James Pennebaker down at the University of Texas at Austin.  He has devised an entire system and software to analyze writing samples and understand how expressive writing can have positive health effects.  His findings include:

  • People who write about their worries and concerns have a decrease in physician office visits when comparing pre- and post-writing periods.
  • Writing about troubling topics has been shown to improve immune system functioning, including antibody responses to various viruses and increases in T-Helper cells.
  • Expressive writing leads to reductions in autonomic nervous system activity, including decreased heart rate and increased muscle relaxation.
  • While writing about emotionally distressing topics can stir up negative feelings in the moment, the long term effects show an overall decrease in emotional distress after these writing exercises.
  • Actively trying to suppress thoughts about unpleasant or traumatic experiences leads to suppression of the immune system.
Pretty cool, isn't it?  If you're a blogger, you may have already noticed the benefits of getting it all out on paper.  Or on screen, as the case may be.  We know that writing creates different changes in our brains compared to simply thinking about an event.  When we write, our thoughts are translated into expressed language and that seems to be where the magic happens, although it's not clear why. 

Snoopy, the original blogger.
The reason researchers in the chronic illness world are interested in expressive writing is the positive effects it can have on patient outcomes.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't the magic cure for any one condition; but it can help.  For example, there are published studies on the benefits of expressive writing for:
  • Cancer
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Infertility
  • Heart Disease
  • Hypertension
  • Chronic pain
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • HIV
So are there guidelines about writing from all of this research?  It seems that writing once a week over a month (or longer) seems to have greater benefits than writing every day for several days in a row.  Everyone seems to benefit from writing, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or personality traits.  If you're just getting started, you may want to write every day for 3 or 4 days about a topic that's bothering you.  Then you can taper back to roughly once a week.

I realize some of your calendars look like this.
Find more of a down time in your day to write, rather than trying to cram it in somewhere between meetings or appointments.  Writing shouldn't be stressful  or feel like a chore.  You don't have to publish your writing on a blog to get these benefits.  Writing works whether others read it or not, and some research suggests keeping it anonymous may be helpful for some people.  What we do know is getting it out is good for us.  So find a way to make that happen.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this, especially if you've found blogging to be helpful in your journey with chronic illness.

Best,
Dr. T