Expressive writing is powerful medicine. It costs you nothing and is easy, fast and profoundly healing. Plus, it empowers you as it is absolutely, privately your own self-healing tool.
Trauma and its emotional upheaval can have profound impact on people’s lives. It can lead to changes in body weight, sleep habits, depression, and heart disease.
Scientists find that those who keep their trauma secret are even more likely to experience these impacts, reports leading researcher, James W. Pennebaker, PhD, in Writing to Heal.
We learned that not talking to others about a trauma placed people at an even higher risk of major and minor illness compared to those who did talk about their trauma.
What do Studies Say?
Repeatedly, studies find that putting traumatic experiences into words releases their emotional grip on our lives. Writing about traumatic experiences for as little as twenty minutes a day for four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health.
- 43 percent reduction of doctor visits for illness
- Lower pain and disease severity rating for arthritis sufferers
- Enhanced immune function
- Improved lung function for asthma patients
- Increased white blood cells in AIDS patients
- Improved sleep
- Modestly reduced blood pressure
- Modestly reduced liver enzyme levels associated with excessive drinking
- Improved long-term mood
Expressive writing doesn’t always work with all people at all times. Nevertheless, “It has been a remarkably successful technique for a large number of individuals,” says Pennebaker.
Is Expressive Writing for You?
Anyone can benefit from expressing emotions in writing. The language you speak, your sex, social status, or cultural background doesn’t matter. Your education or ability to write doesn’t matter either.
Expressive writing is just as effective for an event that happened years ago as it is for a current event. Although, it’s usually best to wait a few weeks after an incident before writing to allow the normal period of feeling disoriented to pass.
No one should see your writing but you unless your want to share it. It works because you can be completely free and open in your disclosure.
“The purpose of expressive writing is for you to be completely honest and open with yourself. Your audience is you and you alone,” reports Pennebaker.
Write in whatever manner is comfortable for you. Studies have not found any significant difference between writing at the computer or longhand.
Acknowledge your emotions. The ability to feel and label emotions… both positive and negative…during and after trauma and major stresses or conflicts is an important part of healing them.
Once you start, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar… just keep writing. If you run out of things to say, just keep repeating what you’ve written.
Build a coherent story. Use emotional writing to help you put things back together again. Write a meaningful story of what happened and how it affected you then and is affecting you now.
Be yourself… write in your own voice. Remember, this is not an assignment for someone else. Express yourself openly and honestly in your own style and language.
Switch perspectives. It’s normal to come from your own perspective in writing about the trauma… what you saw, felt, and experienced.
However, recent studies show that people who benefit most gradually begin to view the events from other people’s perspectives too.
What to Avoid
Over doing it. Do it, analyze it to help your understanding of the experience, and then move on with your life. Writing on the same thing over and over is not helpful and may be harmful for you.
If after several days, you feel you are not making progress try something else. Talk with a friend or see a counselor.
Privacy violation. Your writing is for you. It’s effectiveness lies in your confidence that you can be totally open and honest in what you write. If you aren’t sure your privacy can be maintained consider locking up or destroying it.
Flipping Out. Pennebaker calls this, “the flip-out rule.” Deal only with events or situations you can handle now. If it feels like you can’t handle it now, don’t do it. Write about something less sensitive. You can always come back to it later.
How to Get Started
Create a 4-day writing ritual. The atmosphere you write in can be as important as what you write. Here are some tips for success:
- Write a minimum of 20 minutes over 4-consecutive days. This is a minimum, so if you find you want to write over 20 minute or for longer than 4 days it’s perfectly OK.
- Choose a private place where you can be “yourself”… a time and place that feels good to you and is free of distractions.
- Make it a special time in what ever way seems right for you. Light a candle, wear a special piece of clothing or jewelry, and/or use music.
Chose your situation or event. Expressive writing is particularly helpful for things that you find yourself worrying, thinking or dreaming about.
It can help you deal with a single traumatic event or an ongoing emotional upheaval like dealing with a chronic illness, a significant loss, or an abusive relationship.
It’s best to start with a clear-cut emotional experience that is currently troubling you.
Trust yourself. You may spend most of your time writing about the same experience or you may find after awhile you want to write about another experience. Trust your inner wisdom, as long as these topics are emotionally important, go with them.
If you get bored, switch to another topic. However, if you find your mind wandering to irrelevant topics like what to wear tomorrow bring it back to the traumatic experience.
If it’s not bothering you, don’t write about it. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” says Pennebaker. Most of us have had past traumas in our lives. If it’s no longer bothering you there’s no need to refresh and rehash it.
Write only about traumas of which you are aware. Its not recommended to try to dig up “repressed memories.” If you don’t remember it then don’t try to write about it.
It’s normal to feel sad for awhile after you write. Build in some private time to honor your feelings and to reflect on your writing.
Spend time after each session reflecting on and writing your response to these questions, as recommended by Pennebaker:
- To what degree did you express your deepest thoughts and feelings?
To what degree do you currently feel sad or upset?
To what degree do you currently feel happy?
To what degree was today’s writing valuable and meaningful to you?
Once you’ve completed the 4-day expressive writing series, take a break. Later, several days or weeks, go back and analyze your writing by comparing recent feelings and behaviors with those before expressive writing.
If you noticed positive changes, expressive writing is a good self-healing tool for you.
Expressive Writing Side Effects
Healing the pain of trauma may significantly change you. Because you live in a web of relationships, when you change, it affects those around you.
People in your life may be used to how you’ve been coping. They may even like or depend on your using those coping methods… methods like always trying to please or being overly responsible or working all the time.
It may take a lot of communication and time for your relationships to re-balance after you become healthy again. Sometimes when people discover their true self and let go of protective behaviors, they find out they don’t want to be in the relationships their in.
Most people report that their life changes in beneficial ways even when they profoundly change their relationships with those around them.
Expressive writing is primarily helpful for experiences or conflicts that are bothersome but not overwhelming. If you’re deeply depressed or overwhelmed by recent events, consult a health professional.
Expressive writing supports your natural healing. It costs you nothing, is easy to do, and its only side effect is a more authentic, healthy you.
Invest a few hours in your well-being with expressive writing.
Sources and Resources
James W. Pennebaker, Writing to Heal (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications: 2004).