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Improving health through expressive writing

Apr. 28, 2003, 11:36 AM

Nashville, Tenn–A series of studies at The Vanderbilt School of Nursing are examining whether expressive writing sessions can make a difference in emotional and physical health of patients with chronic illnesses- specifically patients with HIV, diabetes, and people looking for a way to stop smoking.

Ken Wallston, PhD, Professor of Psychology in the School of Nursing, as well as Peabody College, and the College of Arts and Science, and John F. Kennedy Center associate, and Lois Wagner, PhD(c), Senior Associate in Pediatrics and a Clinical Instructor in Nursing, and Kathleen Wolff, MSN, Clinical Instructor in Nursing and a diabetes nurse practitioner are conducting the studies.

Previous research shows expressive writing has a connection to emotions, the immune system, and endocrine activity. The VUSN studies will work to prove whether the written word has the power to heal.

Participants write in private for about 20 minutes, 4 days in a row, or 20 minutes, once a week for 4 weeks. Some subjects are asked to write about the most traumatic or stressful event in their lives. Other subjects are asked to write about a non-emotional event, like what they have scheduled for the day, how they manage their time, or how they might better organize their life.

Prior to starting the writing sessions, participants are asked to complete a basic health questionnaire asking about their perceived physical and emotional health status. They are also asked about adherence to their treatment regimen. When the writing session begins, participants can write as much or as little as they want within the twenty minute time period. Then, at various times after the intervention, the perceived health status questionnaire is repeated for both groups.

"People in the expressive writing condition have had significant reductions in visits to primary care doctors, lower reports of symptoms, and even improvements in immunologic function. Exploring their thoughts and feelings seems to change their immune system as a result of doing this," said Wagner.

Wallston says, "Months later some patients have demonstrated improved functional capacity. Almost all previously published studies, some 40-50, have shown health improvements of some kind."

The research in patients with HIV is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the study of patients with diabetes is funded through a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) awarded to the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center (DRTC). Wallston has submitted another grant proposal to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study people who want to stop smoking. The grant has been approved and Wallston hopes to begin the research this summer.

If you have diabetes or HIV and want to find out more about enrolling in the expressive writing studies, call the VUSN research office at: 615-322-8182.

Media Contact: Heather Hall (615)-322-3894 heather.l.hall@vanderbilt.edu

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