Yesterday, at the fabulous West Creek Ranch retreat center just North of Yellowstone Park, I introduced community leaders from Livingston, Montana to a man named James Pennebaker. It was a brief meeting. In fact, I’m not sure anyone remembers the formal introduction.
I should probably mention that James Pennebaker wasn’t in the room. The meeting consisted of me putting a short and inadequate description of one of his research studies up on a screen. The study went something like this:
Back in 1986, Pennebaker randomly assigned college students to one of two groups. The first group was instructed to write about personally traumatic life events. The second group was instructed to write about trivial topics. Both groups wrote on four consecutive days. Then, Pennebaker obtained health center records, self-reported mood ratings, physical symptoms, and physiological measures.
Pennebaker reported that, in the short-term, participants who wrote about trauma had higher blood pressure and more negative moods that the college students who wrote about trivia. But the longer term results were, IMHO, amazing. Generally, the students who wrote about trauma had fewer health center visits, better immune functioning, and overall improved physical health.
Pennebaker’s theory was that choking back important emotions takes a physical toll on the body and creates poorer health.
Since 1986, Pennebaker and others have conducted much more research on this phenomenon. The results have been similar. As a consequence, over time, Pennebaker has “penned” several books on this topic, including:
- Opening Up: The healing power of expressing emotions
- Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval
- Expressive Writing: Words that heal
- The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our words say about us
- Opening Up by Writing It Down
As most of you know, after a couple decades presenting on suicide assessment and treatment, Rita and I have pivoted toward happiness and well-being. The coolest thing about talking about happiness and well-being is that doing so is WAY MORE FUN, and it results in meeting and laughing with very cool people, like the Livingston professionals.
Speaking of Livingston professionals, just in case you forgot that you met James Pennebaker, here’s a link to my powerpoints from yesterday: Livingston 2019 Final
I hope you had as much fun listening as I did talking.