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The write stuff: Diary writing and psychological wellbeing

Since my first day as a university student back in October 1984, I have kept a diary. What started out as my attempt to write a real-life Secret Diary of Adrian Mole has turned into 30 years of detailed journals where my whole life has been detailed and catalogued in 400-500 words every single day. Sometimes I wish I could stop as they have certainly got me into trouble (as a number of my ex-girlfriends will testify). But I won’t. The advantages of writing about my day-to-day life far outweigh the disadvantages. Even though I have never published any research on diary writing, I did appear on Radio 4’s All In The Mind radio programme where I was given free reign to speculate on why people write diaries.

Writing a diary is nothing new. Millions of people do it. A 2011 article in The Times of India on ‘Why we keep diaries’ noted that being able to keep a diary over a long period is not easy to do as it takes time, effort, patience, and most of all discipline (something that I can vouch for). Nalini Nair, a psychologist interviewed by the newspaper claimed that writing diaries is a form of catharsis (i.e., a process of cleansing or purging our emotions out on paper). She was quoted as saying:

“We relieve our emotional tension through several outlets like art, music and writing a diary is one of them. People who record daily events and jot down everything that they feel are more in touch with their inner emotions”.

A number of psychologists have done studies showing that diary writing is far more than writing for posterity. Some – such as Dr. James Pennebaker in his 2004 book Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval – have gone as far as to say that writing down your feelings is psychologically good for you (something I’ve known personally for years). His research has demonstrated that those who spend time writing about emotionally bad feelings visit their GP less than those that write about non-emotional feelings. More generally, Dr. Pennebaker’s research has found people that benefit the most from expressive diary writing typically use more causal analysis and express more emotion while writing. Therefore, expressive diary writing may be helping individuals simplify and organize their fragmented memories. A summary of Pennebaker’s research on the General Psychology website reported:

“Pennebaker surmised that the Theory of Catharsis can be applied to writing as well. (Sigmund Freud’s theory of catharsis states that people find relief from emotional distress and consequent psychological symptoms by simply expressing their emotions to a trained listener)…He found that college students who wrote about their upsetting and traumatic experiences, along with the associated emotions, reduced their illness visits to the student health center. They were significantly healthier than those students who wrote objectively (without emotions) about negative life events, and those who wrote about topics unrelated from their experiences. Follow-up studies supported Pennebaker’s findings. Pennebaker, Riecolt-Glaser and Glaser (1988) tested the blood samples of the participants and found that cathartic writing boosts the immune system. Additionally, Pennebaker, Spera and Buhrfeind (1994) found that cathartic writing among middle-aged engineers, who were fired after 30 years of service in a company, lead them to overcome their frustration and find alternative employment, compared to those who did not and remained angry and unemployed. This and other success stories strongly suggest that the theory of catharsis can be modified to include writing as a means to improve physical health and psychological wellbeing”.

In 2009, research presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by US psychologist Professor Matthew Leiberman claimed that keeping a diary makes people happier (and termed ‘The Bridget Jones Effect’). Although I have been unable to track down the original conference paper, the research findings were reported in countless newspapers around the world. In the UK, The Guardian reported that:

“Brain scans on volunteers showed that putting feelings down on paper reduces activity in [the amygdala] which is responsible for controlling the intensity of our emotions. Psychologists who discovered the ‘Bridget Jones Effect’ said it worked whether people elaborated on their feelings in a diary, penned lines of poetry, or even jotted down song lyrics to express their negative emotions. When people wrote about their feelings, medical scans showed that their brain activity matched that seen in volunteers who were consciously trying to control their emotions…The psychologists investigated the effect by inviting volunteers to visit the lab for a brain scan before asking them to write for 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Half of the participants wrote about a recent emotional experience, while the other half wrote about a neutral experience.Those who wrote about an emotional experience showed more activity in [the] right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which in turn dampened down neural activity linked to strong emotional feelings.Men seemed to benefit from writing about their feelings more than women, and writing by hand had a bigger effect than typing…The study showed that writing about emotions in an abstract sense was more calming than describing them in vivid language, which could make people feel more upset by reactivating their original feelings. The findings suggest that keeping a diary, making up poetry and scribbling down song lyrics can help people get over emotional distress”

Another study published by Dr. Kitty Klein and Dr. Adriel Boals in a 2001 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology (General) examined expressive diary writing and found that it increased working memory capacity. They did two experiments with their students. In their first study, undergraduates were asked to write about their thoughts and feelings about coming to college. The researchers found that when compared to a control group that were asked to write on a trivial topic, the experimental group showed larger working memory gains when tested seven weeks later. In their second study (and compared to students that wrote about a positive experience and students that wrote about a trivial topic), undergraduates that wrote about a negative personal experience showed (i) greater improvements in working memory, and (ii) greater declines in intrusive thinking. The researchers believed that the improvements in working memory may help free up cognitive resources for other mental activities, including the ability to cope more effectively with stress. Talking to the press, Dr. Boals said:

“[The results] hint at a way to short-circuit that destructive process. They suggest that at least for fairly minor life problems, something as simple as writing about the problem for 20 minutes can yield important effects not only in terms of physical health and mental health, but also in terms of cognitive abilities”.

In a 2008 issue of the British Journal of Health Psychology (BJHP), a study led by Dr. Y. Seih examined the benefits of psychological displacement in diary writing. Their study investigated a new emotional writing paradigm called ‘psychological displacement paradigm in diary-writing’ (PDDP). The authors wrote that:

“PDDP instructs participants to write diary in first-person pronoun first, and then narrate the same event from a different perspective using second-person pronoun. Finally, the participants write it again with third-person pronoun from yet another perspective. These three narrations were to be written in a consecutive sequential order. Results demonstrated that diary writers indeed benefited from features of PDDP. It also showed that highly anxious people received most long-term therapeutic effect from PDDP”.

The authors argued that PDDP enacts the needed mechanism to balance psychological distance prolonging and self-disclosure making in emotional writing. Some of the authors of the BJHP paper followed up this study and published a paper in a recent 2013 issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies. In this latest study (led this time by Dr. Jen-Ho Chang), the researchers attempted to investigate whether the PDPD had both immediate and short-term psychological benefits. Individuals in either a PDPD group or comparison group were randomly assigned to write about their recent negative life experiences twice a week for two weeks. Results showed that the PDPD group showed a decrease in negative emotion and an increase in positive emotion immediately after each diary writing session. The PDPD group also showed an increase in psychological wellbeing relative to the control group for at least two weeks.

Interestingly, there appears to be more research on why writing diaries are good for people rather than on why people write diaries in the first place. As the article in The Times of India concludes:

“Keeping diaries have always been a mystery. Why we keep them and why we record them is something worth probing into. Years later, you can always flip through these diaries and see what you were. The kind of person you evolved from. Perhaps that will give you a better clarity to life on the whole”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chang, J.H., Huang, C.L., & Lin, Y.C. (2013). The psychological displacement paradigm in diary-writing (PDPD) and its psychological benefits. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 155-167.

General Psychology (2013). How can writing improve your health? Located at: http://general-psychology.weebly.com/how-can-writing-improve-your-health.html

Grey, J. (2009). 8 benefits of writing in a journal or diary. Located at: http://hubpages.com/hub/10-Benefits-of-Keeping-a-Journal

Hiemstra, R. (2001). Uses and benefits of journal writing. In L. M. English & M. A. Gillen, (Eds.), Promoting journal writing in adult education (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No. 90, pp. 19-26). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (Located at: http://www-distance.syr.edu/journal1.html)

Kareem, R.A. (2011). Why we keep diaries. The Times of India, August 25. Located at: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-08-25/man-woman/29926572_1_diaries-anne-frank-emotions

Klein, K., & Boals, A. (2001). Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 520-533.

Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering From Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Sample, I. (2009). Keeping a diary makes you happier. The Guardian, February 15. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/feb/15/psychology-usa

Seih, Y. T., Lin, Y. C., Huang, C. L., Peng, C. W., & Huang, S. P. (2008). The benefits of psychological displacement in diary writing when using different pronouns. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13(1), 39-41.

Whitbourne, S.K. (2009). Tracking your travels through time: The benefits of writing in diaries. Psychology Today, December 16. Located at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/200912/tracking-your-travels-through-time-the-benefits-writing-in-diaries

The write stuff: A brief overview of typomania and graphomania

“Life is a series of addictions and without them we die”

This opening quote is one of my favourite quotes from the addiction literature and was made by Professor Isaac Marks in a 1990 issue of the British Journal of Addiction. Whether the statement is true or not depends upon what the definition of addiction is. It’s also a quote that makes me think about my own life and to what extent I have any addictions. Most people that know me well would say that my passion for listening to music borders on the obsessive. Others have called me a ‘workaholic’ (which again depends on the definition of workaholism). Personally, I don’t think I’m addicted to either work or music (and no, I’m not in denial), but I did come across a condition called ‘typomania’ that I can’t so easily deny.

Most definitions of typomania are similar but have slight subtle differences in emphasis. For instance, I have come across six definitions indicating that it is either (i) a craze for seeing one’s writings or name in print, (ii) a mania for writing for publication, (iii) an obsession with the expectation of publication, (iv) an obsession with the business of printing or publishing, (v) an unhealthy passion to write, (vi) an obsessive impulse to write, and (vii) an addiction to writing (where people write for the sake of writing without caring about the quality of the written word).

These latter definitional variations (i.e., obsessive impulse or unhealthy passion to write) has been observed in the psychiatric community as in addition to typomania, has also been termed ‘graphomania’ and ‘scribomania’ (although some of these other definitions claim that the condition concerns the obsession to write books). The term ‘graphomania’ has been used since the early 19th century by both French psychiatrist Dr. Jean-Étienne Esquirol and Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Eugen Bleuler (the man who first coined the term ‘schizophrenia’). A number of independent sources (such as Svetlana Boym in her 1995 book Common Places. Mythologies in Everyday Life in Russia) also claim that the term ‘graphomania’ is a well established concept in Russian culture.

In a 2004 issue of the journal Neurocase, two French academics (I. Barrière and M. Lorch) wrote a paper called “Premature thoughts on writing disorders”. They noted (based on some earlier work by Artières) that writing disorders were one of the “hallmarks” of the 19th century medical world. The paper reported:

 “The identification of a disease contracted by children whose sight and general health were thought to be affected by too much writing labelled “graphomania”. More importantly for the topic under investigation, writing was perceived by clinicians as the privileged means to gain access to the mental states of atypical individuals, including geniuses (see for instance the study on the handwriting of Leonardo de Vinci), criminals, and those affected by a medical condition. This led to numerous studies on the writing of patients affected by various pathologies including dementia, epilepsy and Parkinson”

One of the first uses of the word ‘graphomania’ in a wider public context, was in the New York Times (September 27, 1896) in an article about US Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (under the title ‘Bryan’s Mental Condition’). The article noted that:

“The habit of excessive writing, of explaining, amplifying, and reiterating, of letter making and pamphleteering, forms a morbid symptom of known as ‘graphomania’. Some men may overload their natural tendency to write, but a certain class of lunatics use nearly all their mental activities in this occupation, to the endless annoyance of their friends, relatives and physicians”.

In a psychiatric context, graphomania refers to a morbid mental condition that manifests itself in written ramblings and confused statements. Much of the written content is meaningless nonsense and is also referred to as graphorrhea. Graphomania in a non-psychiatric context concerns the urge or need to write to excess (and not necessarily in a professional context). This is certainly something I can relate to.

In his 1979 Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera noted that:

“Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions: (1) a high enough degree of general wellbeing to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities; (2) an advanced state of social atomisation and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual; (3) a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this connection, I find it symptomatic that in France, a country where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty one times higher than in Israel)…The irresisitable proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down the streets and shout: ‘We are all writers!'”

There doesn’t appear to be much academic or clinical research on graphomania although papers dating back to the early twentieth century exist. For instance, in 1921, Dr. F.T. Hunter wrote about graphomania when reviewing the 1920 French book La Graphomanie (Essai de Psychologie Morbide) by Ossip-Lourie. Graphomania was described as a “psychopathic tendency to write”. To differentiate between whether writing was normal or abnormal, it was observed that:

“All writings which do not convey a positive fact, the result of observation or of experience, which do not bring forth an idea, which do not materialize an image – a personal artistic product – which do not reflect the interior life and the personality of the author, are in the domain of graphomania”.

Graphomania was believed to be “psychosocially acquired” and was acquired as a consequence of the educational methods of the time that taught children to copy rather than to write creatively. Dr. Hunter said that psychiatrists wouldn’t take Ossip-Lourie’s book seriously. More recently, a 1988 paper in a French neurology journal, Dr, J. Cambler and his colleagues described the case of compulsive graphic activity” as a consequence of fronto-callosal glioma (a kind of brain tumour). They reported that spontaneous and graphomanic writing “were abundant and incoercible”. They noted that the behaviour was comparable with that of the compulsive activity that may result from other types of brain lesion (e.g., pallidal lesions or bilateral frontal lesions).

So, do I suffer from typomania and/or graphomania? Based on what I have read, absolutely not. Life may well be a series of addictions, but – as yet – I don’t think I have any.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Artières, P. (1998). Clinique de l’écriture: une histoire du regard médical sur l’écriture. Institut Synthélabo pour le progrès de la connaissance. Le Plessis-Robinson.

Barrière, I. & Lorch, M. (2004). Premature thoughts on writing disorders. Neurocase, 10, 91-108.

Boym, S. (1995), Common Places. Mythologies in Everyday Life in Russia. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cambler, J., Masson, C., Benammou, S. & Robine, B. (1988). [Graphomania. Compulsive graphic activity as a manifestation of fronto-callosal glioma]. Revue Neurol, 144, 158-164.

Hellweg, P. (1986). Manifestly manifolded manias. Journal of Recreational Linguistics, 19(2), 100-108.

History Matters (undated). “Bryan’s Mental Condition:” One Psychiatrist’s View.Located at: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5353/

Hunter, F.T. (1921). Review of La graphomanie (Essai de psychologie morbide). Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, 16, 279-280.

Marks, I. (1990). Behaviour (non-chemical) addictions. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 1389-1394.

Wayne R. LaFave (2003). Rotunda: Il professore prolifico ma piccolo. University of Illinois Law Review, 5, 1161-1168.

Wikipedia (2012). Graphomania. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphomania