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Try Writing to Reduce Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

This three-day exercise might help you in lots of ways.


Updated December 26, 2012

I will start by saying that I do not know of any specific research which looks at the effect of writing on MS symptoms. However, I have long known that when I write about something that is bothering me, I feel lighter somehow and my symptoms seem reduced. Turns out there might be something to this, as writing has been shown to work to reduce the symptoms in other chronic illnesses.

James Pennebaker, the Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, has studied the connection between writing and stress for over 25 years. He discovered that writing about stressful events in our lives can improve both physical and mental health.

In his classic study, undergraduate students wrote about the stressful events in their lives for 20 minutes a day, three days in a row. He followed these students over four years of college and found that students who did the writing assignment used the health center less, got better grades and adjusted to college more smoothly. This writing technique has been studied in numerous settings, and was repeated among people with asthma and arthritis with the result of reducing physical symptoms and even shows promise in improving the health of people with HIV.

Try It To Reduce MS Symptoms

By doing this exercise, you will be reducing the stressful effects of a repeated emotion or memory. By processing your worst current stress, you’ll be able to resolve (or partially resolve) a memory, emotion or event. In doing so, you can potentially reduce some of your MS symptoms (such as fatigue or depression), both by reducing stress-related hormones and just by improving your overall emotional health. Give it a try and see for yourself.

This exercise focuses on using writing to relieve stress, and is based on the work of Dr. Pennebaker. We will use the steps he uses in his studies:

  1. Choose a Time: Find a time in your schedule where you can sit for 15 to 20 minutes undisturbed for three days in a row. Try to make it the same time each day. Some people find that the end of the workday or right before going to bed is best.
  2. Commit: Commit to writing continuously for at least 15 minutes for three days in a row this week.
  3. Set a Timer: Set the timer for 15 or 20 minutes.
  4. Choose a Topic: Here is the exact prompt used in some of Dr. Pennebaker’s research:

    Over the next three days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?

    Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.

  5. Write: Begin writing. Write continuously for the entire time. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or corrections. The important thing is to write the entire time. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you’ve already written. You can write on paper, type on a computer or even dictate into a tape recorder. Do whichever you prefer.
  6. Discard, Archive or Reread: The stress-relieving benefit in this exercise comes from the writing itself. Once you have written about your topic, you can discard the paper, delete the file or erase the tape. You can also keep what you’ve done and review it at a later time. It’s up to you. The important thing is to write for 15 to 20 minutes for least three days in a row.

Important Note

Dr. Pennebaker reports that occasionally during this exercise some people may experience a bit of sadness, much like having watched a sad movie. This typically will end after a few hours. If you find that you become extremely upset while writing about a topic, stop writing or change topics. You can come back to the upsetting topic when you are ready. 

Tips for Success

Think of your topic before you sit down to write.

Be sure that you will not be interrupted while you’re writing.

If you get extremely upset or sad while writing, stop or change topics. You can come back to that topic at a later time.

You can repeat this exercise whenever something is on your mind, bothering you or causing you stress.

To help, here are some suggestions of how you might work this exercise into your week:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday after the kids are in bed; or
  • Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday before breakfast; or
  • Wednesday, Thursday, Friday right after dinner.

Bottom Line

I cannot guarantee that this writing exercise will lead to a reduction in MS symptoms. What I can (almost) guarantee is that, if you do this for three days, you will feel better at the end of the exercise. You will be getting rid of, or at least lessening, unproductive stress that may be slowing you down or steering your thoughts into unwanted places, and that has to be a good thing.

Give it a try. You might be surprised at the results.


Pennebacker, James W. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York: The Guilford Press; 1990.

Read more about stress and MS:

Stress and Multiple Sclerosis

Stress, Fear and Anxiety in the Face of Multiple Sclerosis

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