The study, published in a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report on stress management, followed 46 healthy college students who were asked to write about traumatic life events or trivial topics for 15 minutes on four consecutive days per week.
For six months after the experiment, the research found that students who wrote in the diaries were less likely to visit the campus health centre and also used pain relievers less frequently.
Other experiments supported these findings, like one which found that expressive writing reduced stigma-related stress in gay men. And another, which found that writing helped stressed caregivers of the elderly.
Dr. James W. Pennebaker, who conducted the study and is currently chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, found that there were a number of reasons why writing helped.
He suggested that one reason could be writing's ability to help people organise their thoughts about an event. Writing also allows people to regulate their emotions and break out of the cycle of rumination, which can be very harmful and cause stress.
He also found that if people write, they are more likely to open up to others about their experiences. Writing allows them to become comfortable with an issue and normalise it, which makes it easier to talk about to others.
It should be noted that it is not a be-all and end-all fix, and may not help those suffering severe mental health issues or PTSD.
For those who keep a diary, this may not be news. Writing can be very cathartic, and serve many purposes - such as keeping a record of events, or providing stress relief.
Thinking of giving writing a go for the mental health benefits? Try these effective writing prompts...
- Write down everything, big or small, that you've achieved in your life.
- Imagine your favourite fictional character is facing the same dilemma, and write how they'd deal with it.
- Write an imaginary letter to someone who has changed your life
- Try a word association exercise around the word 'stress'
If you or anyone you know could be at risk of suicide, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Experiencing symptoms of mental illness? See your doctor, or contact beyondblue (1300 22 4636) or SANE Australia (1800 18 SANE).