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Write your way out of stress

The key to a good night's sleep: express yourself in writing.

Is something bothering you? Don't hold it in. Write it down.

Researchers have found that for older people and others, writing about events in your life that are causing you anxiety can lead to fewer doctor visits, better sleep and an enhanced immune system. The concept is called expressive writing.

The subject of what you write isn't always easy to face. "It could be the diagnosis of a disease, it could be the death of somebody or things they worry about too much or obsess about," says James Pennebaker, chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Texas. Pennebaker has done extensive research on the health benefits of expressive writing.

Pennebaker says facing down our fears is a form of healthy coping. And the more difficult the experience you write about, the better the health outcomes may be. Pennebaker's research has shown that blood pressure drops after "the disclosure of traumatic topics but not superficial ones."

The results of writing about what is bothering you can also help ease one of the biggest health complaints of older people: not getting a good night's sleep.

"Very often people toss and turn, especially older people, because they're having problem with their kids, with money, with health," Pennebaker says. "Simply by writing about issues that are bothering them, they sleep better." And, as Pennebaker points out, a good night's sleep is associated with increased immune functions and an overall improvement in both physical and emotional well-being.

What you write about is as individual as you are. "We all have a sense of what's bugging us," Pennebaker says. While some of the topics may make you angry, you will find as you write it's an exercise of the heart and not just the spleen. "Almost all events that we've had had both positive and negative sides to them," he says. "It's important to pay attention to the entire experience."

You can record your feelings using a word processor or pen and paper. But the old-fashioned manuscript may be more beneficial than a high-tech blog. "Writing with pen and paper is probably better than typing because it slows the process down," Pennebaker says. "You're forced to think more."

And what do you do with your text when you are finished? Shred it, burn it, delete it. Pennebaker says the expressive writing is expressly for you. It should not be shown to anyone else. "If you plan to show it to others, you're going to change your story a little bit," he says. "You might be trying to justify yourself, make another person look good or bad, or not hurt their feelings."