They found that regular diarists were more likely than non-diarists to suffer from headaches, sleeplessness, digestive problems and social awkwardness. Their finding challenges assumptions that people find it easier to get over a traumatic event if they write about it.
"We expected diary keepers to have some benefit, or be the same, but they were the worst off," says Elaine Duncan of the Glasgow Caledonian University. "In fact, you’re probably much better off if you don’t write anything at all," she adds.
The study, carried out with David Sheffield of Staffordshire University, was presented at a meeting of the British Psychological Society in Edinburgh.
The pair studied 94 regular diarists and compared their health with that of 41 non-diarists. The subjects, all students at Staffordshire University, answered questions about their diary-keeping habits, and filled in a standard health questionnaire.
ЭWe decided to test the idea that writing is cathartic," says Duncan. She claims that her study is the first to investigate subjects who write of their own free will. In most other studies, volunteers are actually asked to write about traumatic experiences in a systematic way.
The researchers asked the diarists recruited to say how often they made entries and for how long they had kept diaries. They were also asked if they had written about anything traumatic.
Statistically, the diarists scored much worse on health measures than the non-diarists. And worst affected of all were those who had written about trauma. "They were most susceptible to headaches and the like," says Duncan.
Although she does not have proof, Duncan speculates that diarists buck the usual trend because instead of a single, cathartic outpouring to offload trauma, diarists continually churn over their misfortunes and so never get over them. "It’s probably better not to get caught in a ruminative, repetitive cycle," she says.
But she acknowledges that her experiment could not demonstrate which came first - the diary writing or the health problems.
In a forthcoming experiment, she hopes to explore this by asking volunteers new to diary writing to report exclusively positive or negative things, to see if the health of the two groups diverges.
NewScientist.com news service
08 September 2004
Dear diary, you make me sick