Updated: Jan 21
It helped me when I didn't expect it to work!
The first time I tried the expressive writing thing, I thought it would not do much good. At that time, I was studying Psychology in my second year of college, my boyfriend had just left me, and I had just read the book on this technique, "Opening Up" by James Pennebaker (1996). To say that I am the typical person who never tells anyone about what happens, introverted, an insider, and very contained emotionally, my motto in life was "everything is fine" at that time, but it was not.
The results of the writing thing it was shocking to me from the very first day. Writing not only allowed me to deal with my feeling of being abandoned, face emotions with a better understanding of myself, face my traumas, accept my situation, understand my mental processes free of fear of the judgment of others, and get my life back on track. It has been such a powerful technique that I have made it a daily routine.
What is expressive writing, and what are its benefits?
University of Texas psychology professor James Pennebaker first investigated the expressive writing technique in 1986. He wanted to measure the impact of this writing on the general health of his students. He divided his students into two groups, asking the first group to write for four days, 20 minutes each, about some unpleasant or traumatic experience, and instructed the second group to write about some neutral event, not an emotional one in the same condition. The main results of this simple exercise for those students who wrote about an unpleasant experience were a considerable reduction in feelings of anxiety and sadness immediately after this exercise, and fewer reported visits to the health center six months after this exercise (half compared to the students who wrote on a neutral topic).
These students not only attached high value and significance to the experiment but also experienced long-term improvements in their physical and mental health. Subsequent research has found evidence of this psychological improvement, with the most consistent results being fewer visits to the doctor and an overall stronger immune system in some cases.
Since early research, expressive writing has been used to treat mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic disorders. In the case of recovering from post-traumatic stressful events, it is where there has been a greater consensus of evidence of better improvement. This improvement is equal regardless of age, race, gender, or ethnicity.
It is interesting to know that the use of this technique has been also related to better academic adjustment and healthier effective relationships. One explanation for these results is that writing about a traumatic event can help us become aware of our emotional processes by putting an order on them. Conversely, not communicating about trauma can lead to memory and sleep problems, drug abuse, and interpersonal issues. The understanding and awareness of one's own emotions would be the key to being able to integrate these experiences, provide an internal narrative and give cohesion to our experiences. Effectively transforming moments of great emotional intensity into words helps us to manage these emotions, bring them under control, and give meaning and coherence. It also allows you to place yourself in the position of an external observer of your thoughts and emotions and distance yourself from them.
What is not expressive writing?
It is not a form of a writing journal, not even creative writing. You don’t need writing and grammatical skills, and it should not be confused with therapeutic writing, which would imply a subsequent analysis of what has been written, a series of guidelines when writing, and follow-up by a therapist.
On the contrary, expressive writing is a very powerful short writing technique that can allow you to understand and deepen your emotional problems and patterns of thoughts. Expressive writing is all about writing your thoughts and emotions without pausing to worry about grammar and sentence formation and not giving a pause to edit the previous sentences. Expressive writing is writing when you want, how you want, how much you want, and what you want.
We have all suffered to a greater or lesser extent from some traumatic event or unpleasant episode throughout our lives or a vital change, and it is precisely from these episodes that we can benefit the most with this technique.
How can I test expressive writing?
You have nothing to lose, and even it could be life-changing. So, if you want to try the instructions below:
Find a quiet place where no one will disturb you and write for 20 minutes, focusing on your deepest emotions and thoughts about a stressful or unpleasant experience in your life that you want to write about. Try emptying your true feelings onto the page.
You must focus on your deepest emotions about the topic you chose, like, what you felt and thought during the episode, but not so much on describing the events as they happened.
Write constantly without worrying about grammar, misspellings, or style. Write only for yourself. It is not a letter addressed to another person or an explanation for an external listener. Write without concerns that someone might read.
If, at any time, you feel very unpleasant or painful emotions, do not worry, try changing the subject, take a breather or stop writing. It is necessary to write with peace of mind as no one is going to read what you have written.
I want to advise you that immediately after doing this exercise, it is natural to feel a little down, similar to what happens when you watch a sad movie. You have to know that this feeling evaporates in a couple of hours. In the long term, writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings about unpleasant or traumatic events can bring important benefits to your mental and physical health.
You may be wondering if it is better to write on paper or on the computer. It has been shown that writing by hand makes both cerebral hemispheres work in a more connected way and allows more reflective spaces for thought since handwriting is a little slower. However, the benefits of expressive writing are equally positive in computer writing, while the computer allows you to keep your most personal reflections safe. In my case, I prefer writing on the computer. I am jealous of my privacy, and also typing allows me to write quickly and not put a filter on my thoughts. Later I read what was written, and I surprise myself with some thoughts that I did not know I had. Writing is an amazing way to get to know yourself.
Once the exercise is finished, you can throw away or delete what you have written. However, many experts suggest saving it so that after some time, you can reread it to have a better understanding of how you felt at a certain moment and how you explained the event. It also makes us aware of how we are changing over time and overcoming different phases. Expressive writing can be of great help not only if you have gone through a traumatic experience that you cannot get out of your mind, but also simply when you are going through small family or work problems, significant life changes such as a breakup, moving, starting the university, etc.
What is the difference between expressive and therapeutic writing?
Although closely related, therapeutic writing techniques are directed writing techniques, in which precise indications are given that guide the subject to be written. They are focused on following a previous scheme or some keys and include precisely an exercise of rereading and subsequent reflection on what has been written. The rereading will lead you to have a better understanding of yourself and is a good exercise in emotional self-learning. Developing a coherent narrative helps us give structure and organization to traumatic memories and a greater likelihood of emotional healing. Therapeutic writing is usually guided by a psychologist. Though there are also self-applied techniques that can be beneficial, which we will talk about another day.
If you want to know more, I recommend the following books:
“Opening up by writing it down”-James Pennebaker 2016
“Expressive writing”-James Pennebaker 2014
Silly Opera is making it possible to create spaces where you can share your stories, have deep conversations about mental health, and these are open to all but based on an invite-only policy to ensure safety. We have listening circles, open-mic sessions, open discussions, ask-a-counselor and so much more including activities to encourage self-expression. For more information write to us and to join our community by submitting this form. See you there!