The effect of writing during illness on health outcome

Christina Marie Levey-Thors, Fordham University


The work of Pennebaker has shown that writing about traumas has an impact on indirect indicators of physical health such as health center visits (Pennebaker & Francis, 1996). In addition, writing about current experiences has been shown to lead to benefits in physical health as measured by self-reported symptoms and health center visits (Pennebaker & Francis, 1996). However, the issue of whether someone's current illness can be affected by the writing paradigm has not been fully addressed in this research. The present study examined whether writing during a common cold occurrence affects the re-occurrence of cold symptoms in the future, and the effects of being currently sick vs. healthy on the health benefits derived from writing. A sample of 106 undergraduate students with (n = 45) and without (n = 61) an upper respiratory infection were recruited into the study. Subjects were randomly assigned to write about the most stressful event of their lives (n = 48; 22 sick, 26 healthy) or control topics (n = 58; 23 sick, 35 healthy) for 20 minutes a day for four days. Subjects were assessed before and after writing using mood and symptom measures, and one-month later for number of health center visits. Results showed immediate increases in negative mood and physical symptoms after writing for healthy and sick subjects who wrote about trauma. This effect was found on days 1–3 but not on day 4. There was also an interaction between illness status and mood on day 2; subjects who were sick reported significantly higher levels of negative mood after writing as compared to healthy subjects. An interaction between illness status and writing group was found for physical symptoms on day 1. Sick subjects who wrote about trauma reported more physical symptoms. Results suggest that there are differences in reactions to writing about trauma between sick and healthy subjects on specific variables, namely positive and negative affect and symptomatology after writing about trauma. Future research should be aimed at identifying other reactions that are different in sick vs. healthy populations and finding ways of improving the efficacy of the writing paradigm in sick populations.

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Recommended Citation

Levey-Thors, Christina Marie, "The effect of writing during illness on health outcome" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9955967.