Why writing can be an important therapy for your mental health, as per psychology? What does the act of committing words to paper do for your wellbeing?
Well, if you’re writing about your past experiences, you’re doing a mighty important positive thing for your physical and mental health. It’s called writing therapy or expressive writing.
What is Expressive Writing Therapy?
Expressive writing therapy, discovered by James Pennebaker, is writing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings usually themed around an important negative event from the past. It helps relieve emotional trauma. For maximum benefit, the person undergoing therapy keeps writing about their experience over a few days or weeks.
Expressive Writing is also known as:
- writing therapy
- expressive disclosure
- emotional disclosure
- written disclosure therapy
Writing therapy is a low-cost and easy-to-access form of therapy. It can be done by a person on their own or guided by a mental health therapist. Writing therapy can also be done in groups over common or separate topics. It may even be applied as a supplement to another ongoing therapy.
What are the benefits of expressive writing?
How is expressive writing beneficial for us? Science says this type of emotion-focused writing therapy can have the following advantages:
- boost our immunity, and reduce the number of visits to the doctor
- improve disease severity in Irritable Bowel Syndrome patients
- reduce the resting blood pressure levels
- improved symptoms in people with breast or prostate cancer
- improve walking speeds and pain in rheumatoid arthritis patients
- improve lung function in some studies of adults with asthma
- reduce depressive symptoms and general behavioral problems in children with post-traumatic stress disorder
- increase your happiness and wellbeing
- lessen the intensity of a painful memory
- reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms in those with overthinking
- help you throw away the burning coal of anger you hold in your hand
How can expressive writing impact a person’s mental health?
For individuals who have undergone a major traumatic or stressful incident, expressive writing can have the following beneficial therapeutic effects:
- Writing about a painful, stressful, negative life-event can help one arrange their complicated emotions and thoughts in a much more relatable way.
- Writing seems to create a psychological distance from one’s pain. And this dulls one’s feeling of the pain that comes with a memory of the event.
- Putting feelings into words also gives the writer an advantage of readability. Once written, instead of looking back at the memory, they can look at the words and reappraise their trauma more objectively. This could help them find a new meaning in their experience and discover healing.
Pennebaker And Writing Therapy
James Pennebaker, the Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, was the first researcher to show us why writing can be important for our health. Back in the 1980s, Pennebaker started a series of experiments he called expressive writing.
Social psychologist James Pennebaker was behind the discovery of writing therapy.
What Pennebaker started out with was to find out why certain people coped better with the major upheavals in their life. And can there be a way other than social support to help them with the healing process?
Expressive writing, as it turned out, was that.
Pennebaker and Chung write in the Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology, that the common themes explored by participants in all of their studies centered around:
- lost loves,
- tragic failures, and
- sexual and physical abuse incidents.
After writing through all those and disclosing their deepest emotions, most admitted this was a valuable and meaningful experience in their lives.
The first study in 1983 recruited 46 psychology undergraduates. They had to go to Pennebaker’s writing lab for four days running. And spend 15 minutes each day writing about the biggest trauma, or the most difficult time, of their lives.
The immediate experience was one of upset. Some even cried. For the first few days, these students were found to have higher blood pressure and negative moods. Pennebaker, however, kept a watch on them for the next six months. His findings, published later in 1986, were eye-opening.
During those six months, these students made fewer visits to their college health center.
It seemed as if the expressive writing had increased their immunity to diseases. It started a new field of study — psychoneuroimmunology.
Pennebaker later co-wrote a book on it: Expressive Writing: Words that Heal.
How do you start expressive writing?
Here are five simple steps to practice expressive therapy clubbed under the mnemonic WRITE:
- W – What: What would you like to write about — name it.
- R – Reflect/Review: Close your eyes, breathe deep, and reflect/review the topic.
- I – Investigate: Investigate the thoughts and feelings, and start to write.
- T – Time: Time the writing for 5 to 15 minutes a day for 4-5 days.
- E – End: End by re-reading and summarizing in one or two sentences.
To benefit from expressive writing, you don’t have to be a prolific or an outstanding writer. To write, all you need is paper, pen, time, and desire.
You could write as if you are the only person who’s ever going to read it. You don’t need to pay attention to grammar, spelling, style, syntax, or typos. You just need to “pour your heart out to the blank page.”
Here’s a short video of the method of expressive writing therapy:
If you need some cues for writing, check out these Journaling Prompts for Self-Reflection and Self-Discovery from Margarita Tartakovsky, associate editor and clinical psychologist.
Writing Therapy vs Journal Writing: Differences
- In journal writing, one tends to jot down whatever comes to mind. But in writing therapy, one expresses their deep thoughts and feelings about a past event that shook them.
- Journal writing is an ongoing record of recent events, as the progress of a mission over the day or week. Writing therapy is specifically about an old, past event of a traumatic nature.
- Journaling is usually a personal endeavor. While writing therapy can be personal, it is mostly carried out as an instructor-directed exercise.
- Journal writing does not have to have a therapeutic end. But expressive writing therapy has the goal of improving or curing the effects of past mental trauma.
Scientific evidence of the effectiveness of Expressive Writing (Replication Studies)
Studies found expressive writing increased subjective well-being, enhanced cognitive functioning, bettered learning and recall, and improved interpersonal healing.
The most common question a scientist gets to face after their theories make their debut is: Does it work as well as they claim?
Science has its ways to explore things and form plausible theories and discard them if evidence doesn’t support them.
A great way to check if the original claims are true or hollow is to conduct similar studies at other places. And see if the results match.
The findings of Pennebaker have been replicated through subsequent years and found to hold up. Yet, he kept a sharp eye for studies that could debunk his theories. Now, that is the hallmark of a true scientist.
Since those initial experiments in the ’80s, a number of later studies at various other labs were done, and they could replicate Pennebaker’s findings, and add more.
- In a small study on women with breast cancer, it was found they had fewer symptoms that needed a visit to their doctors after expressive writing. Overall, they made fewer cancer-related appointments in the next 3 months.
- Researchers King and Miner found people who only wrote about the positive side of painful life events, were able to confront, control, and arrange their thoughts and feelings about their traumas without having to re-experience the event deeply.
- Researchers Vrielynck, Philippot, & Rime observed the degree of specificity used in the writing seems to relate to the stage of relief. That is, the more precise and specific you are while writing about the emotional event, the better it helps you to feel less stress while facing the event, to make a better sense of the experience, and to express less anger when thinking about it.
Positive Expressive Writing: Jotting For Joy
Up until now, we talked about how writing can be an important therapeutic tool for softening the full force of major mental trauma. But there is another side to it too.
You could write about a positive memory, and it would also raise your happiness levels.
Writing about a pleasant event from the past can make you happier in the present, as you get to re-live that joy today. It gives you a feeling as if you’re sharing that joy with a dear friend, and that friend is yourself.
Researchers Burton and King discovered writing about an intensely positive experience (IPE) for 20 minutes a day for 3 days can create a greater feeling of wellbeing. And it is also linked to fewer health center visits for illnesses.
Writing can start you out on a path of forgiveness. McCullough, Root, and Cohen found people who write about the benefits of the wounds they received from others become less distant, more benevolent, and less vengeful toward the wrongdoer.
This tempers their stance toward their transgressor and helps them forgive.
Studies found that over 30% of consultations in general practice (GP) are for psychological problems. The GP doctor could enroll these patients for writing therapy immediately. This might be a safe and proven therapeutic option until they contact a counselor or psychotherapist.
And now, let’s close this with a fabulous and memorable quote from James Pennebaker:
Theories are grand but never take them too seriously. Their importance is in guiding research. If your data do not support your theory, trust the data more than your theory.— James Pennebaker, social psychologist
What to do when you’ve many traumatic experiences to choose from?
Pennebaker: Focus on the event or issue that you are thinking about most at the time. You can always change topics as needed.
Is it a type of therapy?
Pennebaker: It can be therapy but… it was a method I had tried on my own and discovered that it seemed to work amazingly well. I prefer to call it a method rather than a therapy.
Why write three times or why for 15 minutes?
Pennebaker: The simple answer is that is what we have found what works. But, since the original studies in the 1980s, many researchers (including me) have found that there is no one true way to write. Some studies have found that writing for as little as 2 minutes or as long as 30 minutes can be beneficial. Most studies have varied between 2 and 5 writing times with comparable effects. Sometimes people write multiple times on the same day. If you are thinking of trying out writing for yourself, experiment. See what works. If you are a researcher, experiment. See what works.
Are there any situations where it is contraindicated?
Pennebaker: There is no solid evidence to suggest specific situations where expressive writing would be contraindicated. However, in my experience, I would be reticent to urge people to write in the immediate aftermath of a major upheaval. I generally recommend that people write if they are thinking about an upsetting event too much. If a person is thinking about the death of a very close friend all the time in the days after the event, this is not too much. It’s probably normal. But if they are thinking about the same death a year later, I’d consider that too much. A second circumstance where I would not recommend expressive writing would be when someone is in the depths of a depressive episode. People are already heavily self-focused when deeply depressed and writing naturally encourages more self-reflection. Despite these two potential cautions about writing, I’ve met people who have really wanted to write immediately after a major upheaval or even when deeply depressed and who report that they benefited. As with all psychotherapy, if a person feels that a method is not working or is harmful, they should stop it and try something else.
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[If you’ve ever been stressed out, you may have tried to relieve your anxiety in a number of ways. Was exercise one of them? If not, then quickly learn the brain science behind exercise and happiness.]
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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