How Expressive Writing Can Help Reduce Stress in Patients with Cancer


In an interview with CURE®, Dr. Lawrence An discusses how expressive writing can be a tool to reduce stress in patients with cancer.

When dealing with a cancer diagnosis, an individual may find themselves spending more time in a “fight or flight” state, which, in turn, can have negative impacts on stress levels and even the immune system. That’s why researchers at The University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center created a new expressive writing tool called “Making Meaning” that aims to help patients put their thoughts and feelings into words.

In an interview with CURE®, Dr. Lawrence An, co-director of the Center for Health Communications Research at the cancer center, explained why the constant stress of cancer, compounded by the pandemic and other struggles, is detrimental to one’s health, and how this writing tool can help alleviate that stress and anxiety through writing prompts that engage the mind in a constructive way.


The way that expressive writing works is that many people, during a pandemic, and other times as well, are really just overwhelmed with the events occurring in their lives. And so, when that happens, we go into reaction mode, where we're not able to really think about what's going on, but we're just reacting to the things that are happening to us. And we don't get out of it, right? Because the threat is persistently there. That's really sort of taxing on the brain, and it's really taxing on the body, because it causes the release a lot of stress hormones, and it changes the way the immune system function. It's a really difficult state to live in chronically.

So, then the question is, how do you get out of the fight or flight state into a more calm state, where you can start to process and start to plan a little bit better. And that's where expressive writing comes in. With expressive writing, in a sense, what you're doing is you're taking time. It sounds very strange, as busy as we all are, we often lack the time to sit and reflect, and what expressive writing does, it sort of creates that time, whether it's five minutes, 10 minutes.

People are asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings around an important issue, whether that's their cancer diagnosis, their recovery, a loved one, COVID, having cancer while dealing with COVID, dealing with COVID while dealing with cancer, whatever those challenges are, and that varied process that the brain goes through to tell that story and make that writing gives a sense of organization to all the various events.

This has been in hundreds of research studies across a range of different conditions. When you bring people in and you give them the opportunity to do this writing exercise, it has tremendous benefits in terms of people's coping abilities and it reduces stress, improves sleep, and there even some studies showing that it actually improves the functioning of the immune system.

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