Opening Up

Better than it sounds

I would have never read a book like Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by choice. However, it was assigned for one of my classes, and now I’m glad I did.

Want to feel like blogging is a good thing? Take a look at this book. It offers conclusive, scientific evidence that disclosing yourself (rather than hiding behind a persona or writing about trivialities) is healthy. The subject is a complex one, however, and it covers a lot of fascinating territory.

According to my prof, Dr. Anderson, James W. Pennebaker is the major expert in the field of writing and healing. Reading his book, I can understand why. Despite the “Oprah Book Club” style title, it contains a great overview of what happens when we confess.

Elegies, and the literature of grieving has long been a fascination of mine. Not for the psychology, but for the sheer power of expression involved. Coping with the powerful emotions of grief is a tough thing, and words do help, though I’m still searching for theories of why.

A rough overview by chapters

  • Chapter 1: The Basic premises
    1. Inhibition is physical work.
    2. Inhibition affects short term biological changes and long term health.
    3. Inhibition influences thinking abilities
    4. Confrontation reduces the effects of inhibition
    5. Confrontation forces a rethinking of events.
  • Chapter 2: Inhibition as a health threat.
  • This chapter deals with the effects of non-disclosure. It seems that not being able to talk about events and behaviors or traumatic events forces them inward, into a cycle that cannot be broken. The only way that these things can be dealt with is by acknowledging them, and confessing them to someone else. This can take many forms: talking, writing, and prayer. A person who lacks any outlet for their feelings can never get past them, and as they increase in intensity a large amount of physical work is required to keep them inhibited. This is why inhibition causes health problems.

  • Chapter 3: Becoming healthier through writing.
  • An interesting study is introduced. Tests of immune system activity were done immediately following writing activities. Writing about emotional events caused a huge increase in immune system activity. Writing about trivial events did not. The evidence seems to show that it is a function of disclosure, of confession, rather than catharsis. Subjects usually feel worse after writing about emotional subjects, not better. However, the impact on immune system response is solid and positive, even though in the short term the writing did not make the subjects feel better.

  • Chapter 4: Confession in the Laboratory
  • Introduces studies on brain wave activity. This is fascinating stuff. Using the bicameral hypothesis, the study notes that speech is located in the left brain, whereas the parts of the brain that control negative emotions seem to be located in the right brain. Brain wave studies show that writing about emotional events causes the brain wave activity to become more in sync. Thinking becomes more evenly distributed when we use language to deal with emotions.

  • Chapter 5: The Battle to Inhibit Our Thoughts
  • Try not to think about pink elephants. This chapter introduces the idea that any attempt to not think about something makes us think about it more. Drawing a distinction between high level (self-reflective) and low level (purely reactive) thinking, the chapter proposes that a shift into low level thinking is one method that people use to cope with thoughts they don’t want to have. We literally make ourselves stupid, and non-reflective, just to cope with unwanted thoughts. Penebaker groups exercise in with this, because it allows us to not be reflective. However, over the long term, the thoughts, like pink elephants, don’t go away.

  • Chapter 6: On Speeding Up Coping
  • This chapter details the attempts to codify the grieving process. While bent on prescription, eventually he does admit that people respond differently, and perhaps the majority of people need no help in coping. Some of us are just natural born copers, but some aren’t.

  • Chapter 7: Understanding the Value of Writing
  • This chapter offers two views of how writing deals with traumatic experience. The first view is that traumas can be interpreted as incomplete experiences: divorce, early death, etc. Even in the case of violent trauma, the question “Why me?” remains unanswered, causing the experience to be incomplete. The second view is that writing externalizes the experience, separates us from it, so that we can better cope with it. Studies about test subjects who improved after writing, compared with those that experienced no improvement, suggest that in order to be effective, writing must operate in the realm of higher level reflective thinking.

  • Chapter 8: The Social Price of Disclosure
  • Discusses the difficulties involved with the social network of friends which we may confide in. There are problems of recriminations, and gossip. The overarching issue seems to be one of trust and fear of recriminations. This is why it seems easier to disclose deep personal issues to total strangers that you will never see: there is no possibility of recrimination. This plays deeply to the core of the unique nature of blogging, I think. Because I have nothing to fear from people halfway across the globe, I feel freer to write what I want to. Another issue strongly discussed is the issue of transference. For each positive benefit from disclosure, the listener suffers by taking the trauma of others upon them. I suspect this has much to do with the spontaneous efforts by some to limit blogs to non-emotional topics. There is a fear that goes hand-in-hand with the weight of disclosure.

  • Chapter 9: Love, Passion, and Thrills
  • Pennebaker’s research shows that the physiological effects of writing about positive emotional experiences are much the same as negative ones. If the feelings are released by writing or talking, there are positive health benefits. Sexual repression, and suppression of emotions works exactly the same way as trauma in causing a breakdown of the immune system and confusion of brain wave activity. No big surprises. However, there is a tedious temporal outline of the “stages of love” which pissed me off. While he dismissed most models of grieving, he seems quite at ease with pigeonholing love.

  • Chapter 10: The Inhibited Personality
  • First, this chapter revisits the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. Citing studies on identical twins, it reaches the conclusion that approximately 30-50% of our personality make-up seems to be genetic. This percentage shows that heredity is indeed a significant factor, but that is not exclusive or insurmountable. The real question is if there is any reason to attempt to change personality with regards to inhibition. It seems that “super-inhibited” individuals do live productive and happy lives, though slightly less inhibited people, called “chronically inhibited,” do seem to enjoy health benefits from lowering their inhibition level. The lines are indistinct, at best. Pennebaker offers a test to determine your level of inhibition:

    1. Before I make a decision, I usually try to consider all sides of the issue.
    2. I believe in playing strictly by the rules.
    3. I rarely, if ever, do anything reckless.
    4. I am a serious minded person.
    5. I always try to be fully prepared before I begin working on anything.
    6. I very much dislike it when someone breaks accepted rules of good conduct.
    7. I rely on careful reasoning when making up my mind.
    8. I am a cautious person.
    9. Whenever I decide things, I always refer to the basic rules of right and wrong.
    10. I am not an “impulse buyer”

    According to his test, I score a 5. People who answer “yes” to more than eight items on this list are considered “inhibited.” Inhibition, however, is a socially desirable characteristic. Another questionaire of note in this chapter regards the desire to make “chronic inhibitors” less inhibited.

    • What function is inhibition currently serving?
    • What are your motivations and expectations for change?
    • What is the nature of your situation?

    The final question brings out the real impact of social interaction. We surround ourselves with personality types which reinforce our personality styles, including inhibition.

  • Chapter 11: Inhibited Cities
  • Details the impact of traumatic experiences, shared experiences, on cities. Dallas, after the Kennedy assassination, towns in Washington, after the Mt. St. Helens eruption, and San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake. The most interesting thing that comes out in these studies is that there is often an “inhibition period” where residents refuse to talk about the events. This is tied to the notion of completion as well: if residents aren’t sure the traumatic event is really over, they don’t want to talk about it.

  • Chapter 12: Confession in Context: The
    rapy, Religion, and Brainwashing.
  • Describes the ritual nature, and social functions of confession. Explores the effect of environment on confessional experiences. Perhaps the most significant thing revealed in this chapter is the sliding scale of “deep feelings” that we use. The depth of confession varies with the context and environment.

  • Chapter 13: Beyond Traumas: Writing and Well Being
  • The summation of the book offers the theory that writing organizes traumas, and goes further to describe the benifits of writing on health and well being:

    • Writing clears the mind.
    • Writing resolves traumas that stand in the way of important tasks.
    • Writing helps in acquiring and remembering new information [wow, that must be what I’m doing here!]
    • Writing fosters problem solving
    • Freewriting promotes forced writing.

    I’ve got big problems with the last one: forced writing is good? Then why do you call it free? Sorry, I still don’t believe in freewriting as a cure for the world’s ills. Expressive writing, yes. Freewriting, well if it works for you, great.

    Pennebaker seems to be really sure of himself as he declares the possible downsides to writing. First, writing should not be a substitute for action. Second, he declares that the type of writing I’m often accused of as counterproductive:

    It’s grand to be smart. But intelligence and a classical education do not guarantee anyone emotional stability or personal insight. If you find that your writing often moves in a safe and non-personal direction, wherein you are citing the works of Virginia Wolfe to explain the ultimate failure of Napoleon, your writing may be quite interesting and even publishable. But don’t expect intellectualization to improve your health.

    I don’t see my writing that way at all. I quote other writers or intellectuals because I feel very emotional about them. They are some of my best friends lately. So being “intellectual” is indeed, quite a personal thing and a strong matter of disclosure.

    The final caveats regard writing as “an exercise in complaining” and “writing as an exercise in self-absorption.” Writing is a poor substitute for friends. Duh, I could have told him that.

1 thought on “Opening Up”

  1. stages of love! pah.apart from that tho… sounds good :)”Oprah Book Club style title” cracked me up 🙂
    at best a light high? if you really wanna know the ecstasy of confession go do it to a priest. there’s really nothing like it on earth.
    Hello everyone,Dr. Pennebaker’s work is gaining an underground following. *grin* Thanks for the tip on the book.Some links and URLs:First of all, to his home page at the University of Texas:, to a page where some of his research articles have been reprinted and made available in PDF: months ago, I became aware of Dr. Pennebaker’s work while I was doing some freelance consulting with a local experiential artist. In the aftermath of September 11, we were trying to put together a healing art experience called “In Light of Dark” using art and various forms of multimedia. Part of it required doing some research, and I was directed to check out Pennebaker’s research on collective trauma and social coping.For a non-academic like me, it was quite revealing and truly fascinating. I recommend checking out a 1993 paper called “A Social Stage model of Collective Coping.” Here’s the abstract: “A summary of two studies examining normal individuals in the United States and their reactions about these events over time — from within hours after the earthquake or outbreak of war to a year later.”In the wake of September 11 and our own reactions toward a truly traumatic experience, plus the aftermath, this should be required reading.

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