'Blog Therapy' - An Evaluation of an Online Self-Help Phenomenon
'Blog Therapy' - A Way of Coping With Stress and Illness, A Way of Promoting Health?
A Definition of Blog Therapy : In this article I will be writing about 'blog therapy', although this is a term in common use among bloggers, it is a practice that has yet to be recognised outside the blogosphere. In this article, I will use the term 'blog therapy' to mean the practice of writing about personal problems, emotions and traumas, then publishing these writings on the internet, where others can read them. This normally takes place in the form of an online journal or 'blog', though some people also post to message boards and chat rooms.
The key difference between 'blog therapy' and therapies such as writing a personal journal, is that these personal writings are made available for many other people to read online.
Blogger's Own Views of 'Blog Therapy'
Although I do not write much about my deepest personal traumas or worries, I personally find blogging therapeutic. It is giving me something else to think about outside work and and daily life, a way of expressing myself, letting off steam at the things that make me angry and pointing out things that need changing in the world.
The use of blogs as 'therapy' is a new, spontaneous internet phenomenon. Without advice from counsellors, psychotherapists or other health professionals, hundreds of people have begun to use the blog as a method of self help. Blogging in this way has a particular set of benefits, and also a particular set of risks.
A technorati search revealed 161 bloggers who had already coined the term 'blog therapy' (it is likely that many more are using blog therapy as a practice, without naming it in this way) - Scheherezade at Stay
of Execution writes: "There is a complex, and sometimes therapeutic, relationship between my own sense of self and this blog"
She has a very instructive description of the battle between her instinct for honesty and her instinct for self-censorship, rightly knowing that everything she writes is permanently indexable by google (which is indeed how I found her blog!)
This blogger at 'Netsmarts' thinks blog therapy is 'an idea whose time has come'.and that blog therapy is a 'democratic' way for people to express their thoughts and worries. Blogging is certainly cheaper than paying a psychoanalyst, from one of the many and varied schools of psychoanalysis.
House of Karma sees blogging as a 'concept and environment of healing words and writing' and offers links to many sources of 'online therapy'. I am not casting aspersions at any particular source on that list, but there is a big danger on the internet of falling into the hands of charlatans and quacks who exploit human weakness and suffering, some for financial, some for other ends.
I personally tend to avoid sites that seem too 'crystal jangly' - the point of blogging is to express yourself and find your own meanings, rather than to seek advice from people who feel protected from the consequences of their advice by the anonymity and distance afforded by the internet. My advice (protected by the anonymity and distance afforded to me by the internet) is 'be careful out there!'
That of course was only a very cursory glance at a few of the blogs that have mentioned the therapeutic nature of blogging - by the very nature of blogging, it is very difficult to build up an exhaustive list of everyone who has written on a certain topic - and I have probably missed many of the best articles out - but part of the fun of blog reading is the hunting down of new articles, there could always be a fantastically well written and insightful piece of writing, by someone you have never heard of before, hiding deep down somewhere on your next list of search results.
Psychological Theory of Disclosure
I will now consider some of the theories and evidence that might back up the practice of 'blog therapy' as a self-help tool.
I found 44 articles containing the keyword 'blog' on a combined search of Ovid and CINAHL, but none on a search of PsycARTICLES. Most of the articles describe blogging as a useful tool for research and education (for example Margaret Maag), but the therapeutic potential of blogging, and the reality that hundreds of people are already using the internet as a outlet for their emotional turmoil, seems yet to be recognised by the leading academic journals.
There are however articles on the beneficial physical and psychological effects of keeping journals and diaries, and of writing about traumatic events;
For example, Yori Gidron found that parents who wrote about their experience of receiving their child's diagnosis of leukaemia experienced less distress in later months.
Pennebaker et al (1999) found open acknowledgement and disclosure of stress and emotion, particularly through journal writing was a method of 'revealing organising and reorganising the self', Willis, Stroebe and Hewstone (2003) see journal writing as a useful tool for 'insecure homesick students' suggesting that such techniques 'provide avenues for (re)structuring stressful experiences' and allow 'assimilation of events into the self-concept' as well as using cognitive resources that were 'previously used for inhibition to tackle the changed environment'
Scott found that writing about a recent traumatic event speeded up wound healing - in a rather remarkable study; participants were physically wounded (a small skin puncture). Half the sample wrote about a recent traumatic event, the other half about time management, those that had described their traumatic events had significantly smaller wounds two weeks later! Having a means to express feelings thus seems to encourage the body's internal healing mechanisms: Writing Improves Wound Healing
The researchers who seem most up-to-date with some of the therapeutic applications of communications technology are Sheese, Brown and Graziano (2004) who look at the potential for email interactions between client and therapist, arguing that "writing about trauma, particularly about feelings and emotions related to trauma, appears to have a long-term positive impact on a variety of physiological and psychological health outcomes" they point out various advantages of email, which also apply to blogging, such as the overcoming of physical and geographical boundaries, but also point out that people reliving traumatic and emotional experiences may need access to immediate care due to short term increases in emotional affect, immediately after writing, care which may not be present over an electronic connection.
Of course, the kind of writing described by these psychologists is a private journal, written by the individual, and used in confidential discussions with a trained counsellor.
It seems likely that blogging could have similar beneficial effects on both mental and physical health, due to the Pennebaker disclosure effect, and it can also be a way of bringing together people who have suffered similar emotional trauma, but, ending on a cautious note, it must be remembered that:
1. Blogs are written by individuals, without the presence of a trained health professional to mitigate any distressing effects of writing about negative experiences. If bloggers do experience such effects, they would be well advised to contact appropriate telephone helplines and see their doctor.
2. Blogging is not an alternative to spending time with friends and socialising. If blogging is taking over such a large proportion of a person's time, thought and energy that their work and social life is suffering, then blogging could be having a negative rather than a positive effect.
3. BLOGS ARE (usually) AVAILABLE FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION, and even where blogs are anonymous, there are often ways that people will find out who you are, and there are people out there who might wish to use what you write to their own advantage -
scheherezade's circumspection on certain topics is thus a sensible strategy to imitate.
In this article I have compared the practice of blogging, with the practice of writing about thoughts and feelings in a personal and private journal. In some ways, this may not be an entirely fair comparison to make - perhaps it is the fact that blogs are publicly available that gives blogging it's particular power, and provides some people with the motivation to continue blogging. It could be that blogging is a practice that appeals to a different set of people, who would not neccessarily use other forms of therapeutic writing.
It is also clear, that just as 'blog therapy' is a self-generated phenomenon, it is not likely to go away simply because its risks are pointed out. In this technologically savvy age, people are increasingly aware of the risks of public disclosure on the internet, and largely blog responsibly in a way that is informed by this awareness.
I would be interested to hear of the experiences of people who have used blogging as a way of 'talking through' their bad times and traumas with themselves (and their audience) in particular, I would like to know whether you felt it beneficial, and whether you regret having disclosed certain things.
Some handy references using The Harvard Referencing System:
Pennebaker, J. W. Keough K.A. (1999) Revealing, organizing and reorganizing the self in response to stress and emotion. In R.J. Contrada and R.D. Ashmore (Eds) Self, Social Identity and Physical Health; Interdisciplinary Explorations Oxford; Oxford University Press Pp101-121.
Sheese, B, E. Brown, E. L. Graziano, W.G. (2004) Emotional expression in cyberspace; searching for moderators of the Pennebaker disclosure effect via E-mail. Health Psychology 23(5). Pp457-464
Willis, H. Stroebe, M. Hewstone, M. (2003) Homesick blues. The Psychologist 16(10) Pp526-528.