Confronting Upsetting Experiences: Expressive Writing for Healing
People often block out thoughts that provoke negative emotions as a way of reducing their stress and regulating their moods. However, intentional suppression of deep-seated emotions not only increases susceptibility to illness, but also amplifies the emotionality and associated psychological effects of the suppressed thoughts.
Discussing, venting, clarifying, or expressing a trauma is a natural human response. When this necessity is inhibited, emotional stress and physical illness ensue.
Facing up to deeply personal issues can promote physical health, well-being, and beneficial behaviors.
The scientific research on the benefits of putting negative experiences into words is extensive. Studies have shown that expressive writing about oneself and one’s traumatic or stressful experiences does produce significant health benefits. Expressive writing helps ameliorate mood disorders, reduces symptoms among patients with serious illness, improve a person’s physical condition after a heart attack, and even enhance memory.
Writing about Emotional Topics Brings About Improved Physical and Emotional Wellbeing
James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, first investigated expressive writing as a healing process in the 1980s. Since then, research that spawned from Pennebaker’s pioneering studies, has revealed benefits could accrue to those who were dealing with divorces, lost love, death of loved ones, job rejections, terminal illness, even college students struggling with first-year transitions.
Here are the main points about the expressive writing method:
- Choose the part of the day when you are most contemplative (that’s the morning for most people.) Sit down at a place where you are not likely to be disturbed.
- Reflect about a very personal and important event. Consider a significant emotional upheaval that influences your life the most or has in the past. Your topic can be about a distress or failure, lost love, health-, school- or career-related anxiety, relationships, inner conflicts, death of a loved one, or just about any topic that you would like to express.
- If you’re writing about an experience or an event that involves another person, it can help to organize your writing as a letter to that person, whether alive or dead.
- Write your deepest thoughts about your chosen event or experience continuously for 20 minutes. If you run out of things to write or reach a mental block, just repeat or recap what you have previously written.
- In your writing, deeply explore your thoughts about the event and describe its effect on you. In other words, write both about what happened and how you feel about it. Think about how you can handle these events and their consequences now—what you can do specifically.
- Connect your personal experiences to other parts of your life. How do they relate to your childhood, your parents, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be?
- Write for yourself as your thoughts arise. Be as direct, intense, and serious as possible. Do not worry about grammar, spelling, comprehensiveness, legibility, or structure. On the opening day of writing, your stories are not very structured, but over the three or four days, you will develop a more structured narrative.
- After writing for 20 minutes, do not look back over. Simply fold the papers you used, seal them, and put them away (read more about the “worry box technique.”) Unlike psychotherapy, the expressive writing technique does not employ feedback to the participant.
- Make a mental note of how you feel. It is not unusual to feel sad or disheartened after writing—these feelings usually fade away in an hour or so. In research experiments, many participants have reported crying or getting upset by the experience of writing about emotional upheavals, but most participants testify that the writing experience was meaningful in helping them organize their experiences.
- Repeat this exercise for four consecutive days. You can write about the same experience on all four days or about different experiences each day. If you choose to write about the same topic on all the four days, try to wrap everything up by the fourth day.
Note that expressive writing is distinct from keeping a daily journal in that it allows people to step back for a moment and evaluate their lives. Pennebaker once said, “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. … But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”
Translating an Emotional Experience Into Language Makes the Experience Graspable: it Can Help You Find New Meaning in Life’s Ordeals
New research has shown that expressive writing—followed by expressive rewriting—can improve happiness and lead to behavioral changes. Narrative storytelling of an unpleasant and chaotic experience may make the experience and its effects more controllable. For instance, according this New York Times article,
At the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, life coaches ask clients to identify their goals, then to write about why they haven’t achieved those goals. Once the clients have written their old stories, they are asked to reflect on them and edit the narratives to come up with a new, more honest assessment. While the institute doesn’t have long-term data, the intervention has produced strong anecdotal results.
Idea for Impact: Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself
By exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings with a reflective, inquiring, honest attitude, you can shift perspective. Standing back and reflecting on your suffering from different points of view can bring about an improved emotional state. You can create your greatest opportunities for change by confronting the realities, reframing your experiences in terms of your values and priorities, and identifying impediments that stand in the way of purpose, joy, and contentment.
For more on the means and methods of expressive writing, as well its many confirmed physiological and behavioral benefits, read James Pennebaker’s Opening Up: the Healing Power of Expressing Emotion (1997) and Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing (1999)