Heard on Campus: Writing for your health

Writing can be good for your health, a Penn State Harrisburg researcher contends.

Assistant professor of English composition and humanities Julie Kearney profiled more than 20 years of research in a recent seminar on campus entitled “Writing, Learning, Healing: Some Unconscious Aspects of Communications.”

A specialist in writing and rhetoric, Kearney has been investigating connections between writing and health since the 1980s when she observed improved behavior and enhanced self-esteem in psychiatric patients and incarcerated youths who undertook writing projects.

Of her ongoing examinations into the link between writing and emotional, physical, and spiritual healing, Kearney asserts, “Writing can have the same beneficial health effects that can come from exercise, meditation, sleep, or even prescribed drugs.”

Focusing on “writing for the verb” – the type that is personal and comes from an “inner voice” – Kearney has examined the “altered state of consciousness” which persons develop through writing and how it enhances health. “People lose sense of time, where they are, and find memories they thought were lost, including scenes from childhood, when they write,” she says. “And writing can help us cope with emotions and thoughts we don’t normally talk about.”

To provide a hands-on example of her premise, Kearney frequently gives her undergraduate and graduate students an assignment. She asks them to pick one of three topics – mother’s/father’s voice, breaking the rules, or in the middle of the night – and then draw on their “inner voice” to write something personal on the subject. After 5 minutes, she asks the students to then choose a topic or phrase from their first attempt and expand on that for 5 more minutes. After a third iteration, students recognize the altered state of consciousness, she adds.

Through that altered state of consciousness spurred by writing, serotonin in the brain is elevated, leading to the health and mood benefits, she points out. Supported by other independent studies, the writing-serotonin link is claimed to positively impact mood and the immune system.

Serotonin is a chemical in the brain and central nervous system that helps maintain a happy feeling and seems to help keep moods under control by helping with sleep, calming anxiety, and relieving depression. Low levels are believed to be the reason for health and emotional symptoms such as apathy, fear, feelings of worthlessness, insomnia, and fatigue.

To support her theory, Kearney recently ran a three-day test of 50 people who were given four writing assignments. Surveyed at the end of each day, the study showed that participants with “low anxiety about writing were most likely to reach the altered state of consciousness” and be more likely to gain benefits from writing.

She now plans to expand her research on the value of writing to include several more theories on its advantages.


Media Contacts: 
Last Updated May 12, 2009