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Wednesday, April 14, 1999 Published at 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK


Writing tonic for chronic complaints

Writing out stress can have health benefits

Writing about stressful events can improve the health of people with chronic conditions, say doctors.

An American study of asthma and arthritis patients found that those who wrote down their feelings concerning the most stressful events in their lives showed clinical improvements in their conditions.

Previous studies of healthy people have also shown a beneficial impact of writing down emotions.

But researchers from North Dakota State University and the State University of New York say this is the first study to assess the impact on specific chronic conditions.

Asthma and arthritis

They selected 48 asthma and 35 arthritis patients and asked them to write about the most stressful event in their life for 20 minutes on three consecutive days.

The patients were compared with 22 asthma and 21 arthritis sufferers who were asked to write about their plans for the day.

[ image: Asthma affects a growing number of people, particularly the young]
Asthma affects a growing number of people, particularly the young
All continued with their regular medical treatment during the experiment.

The researchers found that 47% of the patients who wrote about their feelings showed clinical improvements after four months, compared with 24% in the control group.

Asthma patients' lung functioning improved by an average of 19%. The control group showed no change.

Arthritis patients noted an average 28% reduction in the severity of their symptoms, compared with no change in the control group.

Previous studies on healthy people have found that writing about feelings can be emotionally upsetting, but can be beneficial for health.

For example, it can boost the immune system and have an impact on heart rate and blood pressure.

Coping mechanism

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers, led by Joshua Smyth and Arthur Stone, say: "It is possible that such affective or physiological responses can explain our results."

But they add that it could be that the experience of writing down emotions changed the way people thought about stressful events in the past and helped them cope with future problems.

The researchers said it was not clear if the positive effects would last longer than four months or whether they were beneficial for other chronic conditions.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr David Spiegel of Stanford University School of Medicine in California, says: "This study adds important data to the growing evidence that even limited interventions designed to improve management of stress have lasting somatic effects.

"In this and a growing number of other studies, it is not simply mind over matter, but it is clear that mind matters."

Stress management

A spokeswoman for the National Asthma Campaign said the study was too small to be very meaningful.

But she added that writing down emotions could help a small number of asthmatics whose attacks were triggered by stress.

"We welcome anything that could benefit patients, but it is not a panacea," she said.

"It is part of a stress management technique which can benefit healthy people as well as those with chronic conditions."

Jane Tadman of the Arthritis Research Campaign said stress or trauma might be a factor in some flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis.

She said stress management was part of trying to control arthritis and a survey by the Campaign showed this could improve health.

"People who genned up and tried to take control of their condition did better than people who passively accepted it," she said.

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