Private Confession

Baring your soul, even to yourself alone, can be good for your soul -- and for your body too

copyright (c) 1994, 1998 by Syd Baumel


Confession is good for the soul.

And it's not bad for the body either.

Baring your soul can not only calm your heart, research suggests, it can lower your blood pressure. Confronting your demons can not only ease your worried mind, it can boost your flagging immune system.

Like an apple a day, confession can keep the doctor away.

And you don't necessarily have to tell all on the Oprah show or even to a counsellor or a friend. If your secret's too sensitive -- or if you're just too reserved -- confessing privately to yourself, thoughtfully, expressively, onto the pages of a notepad or into a tight-lipped tape recorder, can be good medicine too.

The guru of confession research is a fortysomething, blue-jean clad professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas named James Pennebaker. In 1986, Pennebaker and a colleague named Sandra Beall published a seminal study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Their guinea pigs were 46 first-year psychology students randomly divided into four groups. One group -- the control group -- was instructed to check into the psych lab four days in a row and to write continuously for 15 minutes, without worrying about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure, about a trivial subject: their shoes, for instance. The other three groups followed the same procedure, only their assigned topic was a little steamier: "the most upsetting or traumatic experience of your entire life." The less they'd spoken about it before, the better. They signed their anonymous "confessions" with a code number -- privacy guaranteed.

In his engaging, thoughtful book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker attempts to define what makes some types of self-disclosure therapeutic and others less so (or not at all). Simply recounting the bare details of your problems, Pennebaker notes, is meagre medicine for the soul. Just venting your feelings also fails to deliver in the long run, Pennebaker argues. For a real catharsis to occur, he concludes, head and heart must come together: honest emotional expression and probing, "self-reflective" thought must both be brought to bear upon the nuts and bolts of your story.

Pennebaker and Beall's first study helped shape that conclusion. Of the three groups told to write about their traumas, one group was told to stick to the facts, another to their feelings (without reference to the facts), and only the third to probe their "deepest thoughts and feelings about the experience." Only the latter group enjoyed significant health benefits. Over the following 5 1/2 months, their visits to the student health centre dropped by half. And while reopening old wounds was depressing at first, soon the students bounced back. Many went on to feel healthier, happier, more in touch with themselves than they had before enrolling in the study.

Pennebaker and his associates quickly replicated the health centre effect with another 50 students. This time they uncovered a possible mechanism for the effect: In the laboratory, the white blood cells of the "confessing" students proliferated in response to foreign substances more readily after the writing exercise than before. Six weeks later, their T-lymphocytes were still showing signs of stimulation.

It was a heartening finding. Other research had revealed that distressed people tend to have weakened immune systems and that those who keep the pain to themselves are most likely to sicken. Now it seemed a notepad could be as handy a health-keeper as a sympathetic ear.

Pennebaker and researchers from other centres have replicated and expanded upon these early findings. Some generalizations have emerged:

  • Writing or talking about any personal stress, past or present, can make you feel better and help preserve your health.
  • Talking to yourself can be as therapeutic as writing. In a study from the University of Miami, both private confessional writing and speaking into a tape recorder increased students' tolerance for Epstein-Barr virus, the critter that causes mononucleosis and possibly some cases of chronic fatigue syndrome and depression.
  • We "confess" most readily in dark or dimly lit settings. It also helps if the location is unique or unusual and if we're very relaxed or, conversely, very excited.
  • The health benefits of "confession" tend to be proportional to the seriousness of the matter discussed, the extent that you actually open up, and the degree to which you've clammed up in the past. People with exceptionally anguished stories not easily shared with others -- survivors of severe abuse or torture, veterans of unpopular wars, people with unusual illnesses or handicaps, isolated victims of discrimination -- are prime candidates for confessional healing. Holocaust survivors are a case in point.

In the early 1980's, Pennebaker and his associates conducted lengthy interviews with over 60 Dallas area Holocaust survivors for a video archive. It was the first time most had really told their stories, even to their families. It wasn't for lack of memories. "One woman," Pennebaker writes, "confided that she relived war scenes in her mind dozens of times per day. She didn't talk about them, but they were always with her."

Like other survivors of, until recently, "unspeakable" forms of abuse, Holocaust survivors had been beset by more than their fair share of health problems. Could speaking out reverse this trend?

It seemed it could -- but only for those survivors able or willing to really bare their true thoughts and feelings. In the following year, the "medium and high disclosers" paid significantly fewer visits to the doctor. Sadly, those who held back paid more visits. In the end, most of the survivors felt they and their families had been profoundly and beneficially affected by the exercise.

Pennebaker would be the last person to exaggerate the benefits of private confession. As he himself confesses: "For some people, writing or talking about a trauma can make a dramatic difference, for others it may have no effect whatsoever."

And when we're too distraught or confused to confront our feelings and marshall our thoughts on our own, a therapist may come in more handy than a writing pad.

Where Pennebaker is most assured is in recommending confessional writing as a "preventive maintenance" technique. In trying times it can help keep body and soul together; and at any time it can help keep the ghosts of traumas past from haunting and hurting us any more than they already have.

Pencils anyone?

Confession Rx: "High Level Thinking" is Key

Confession is a healing institution in virtually all cultures, whether it be confessing to a trusted authority figure (a priest, shaman, or therapist), to one's fellows (as in many evangelical churches, support groups, and yes, TV talk shows), to significant others (to victims of one's misdeeds, for instance), or privately to God or one's conscience.

Informally, confessing or self-disclosing on paper (or computer monitor) is an institution in its own right. And while it may lack some of the merits of interpersonal confession (the availability of emotional support and feedback, for instance), it has certain advantages. When we confess to ourselves alone (or to God or our inner Confessor) it can be easier to relax our inner censor, to be as frank, unselfconscious, and true to ourselves as possible.

But do we have to write or speak it? Couldn't we just 'fess up in our heads?

Ironically, surveys by Pennebaker's group suggest that's the problem. The more people think about their troubles, the less they talk about them -- and the sicker and unhappier they are.

Strange. If talking and writing help, why does thinking hurt?

The answer, according to Pennebaker, is that when we're overwhelmed by stress we all too easily become mired in "low level thinking." We become the passive victims of punitive inner voices, primitive impulses, regressive emotions, and blitzes of disturbing dreams, images, and memories.

High level thinking this ain't.

"High level thinking" is what we do when we actively confront our problems with all the emotional and intellectual resources we can muster. Talking to a good listener promotes it. Indeed, any time we have to articulate what's going on inside us, low level thinking is apt to give way, by necessity, to high level thinking. And this is why writing, in the emotionally honest and self-reflective way prescribed by Pennebaker, or even talking "confessionally" into a tape recorder (or into thin air, perhaps), can be therapeutic. When we finally find the words, sentences, and paragraphs with which to weave our raw experiences into the fabric of our life stories, we perform a vital act of self-integration; we collect ourselves and find some measure of peace and wholeness in the process.

Not that we have to write or talk to cogitate at this "high level." Deep relaxation or meditation can gear us up to it (which may help account for their well-documented health benefits). And sincere, heartfelt prayer is a veritable exercise in high-level thinking. In one of Pennebaker's studies, prayer preserved the health of bereaved husbands and wives as effectively as talking to their friends.



Check out James Pennebaker's Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions at Amazon.com

Browse more books by James Pennebaker at Amazon.com

Browse books on self-disclosure ("confession") at Amazon.com

Browse books on "psychoneuroimmunology" - the influence of the mind on health - at Amazon.com

Browse studies by James Pennebaker on Medline

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