Writing may ease symptoms

Many CFIDS patients have found benefits in writing, and a new study suggests those benefits may be more than emotional.

Patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about the most stressful experiences in their lives experienced a substantial, clinically observed reduction in physical symptoms, according to a study published in the April 14, 1999, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, by Joshua M. Smyth, PhD, and colleagues at North Dakota State University in Fargo, involved 112 patients who were assigned to write about stressful events or emotionally neutral topics. Those who wrote about traumatic life experiences had significant changes in health after four months, compared to the control group.

“These gains were beyond those attributable to the standard medical care that all participants were receiving,” the authors wrote. “It remains unknown whether these health improvements will persist beyond four months or whether this exercise will prove effective with other diseases.”

A growing amount of literature suggests that addressing patients’ psychological needs produces both psychological and physical health benefits. Expressive writing is one such technique that has been used successfully in several controlled studies. While the mechanisms underlying these effects have not been established, the authors noted that participants experienced considerable emotional upset during the writing sessions along with changes in heart rate and blood pressure. Perhaps, as other studies have suggested, the immune response is affected by those physiological responses, or memories of past traumas may be altered by the writing process, making it easier to cope with stress.

In an accompanying editorial, David Spiegel, MD, of Stanford University, wrote that the study “provided evidence that medical treatment is more effective when standard pharmacological intervention is combined with the management of emotional distress. Ventilation of negative emotions, even just to an unknown reader, seems to have helped these patients. It is not simply mind over matter, but it is clear that mind matters.”

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