Expressive Writing

by Bob Walsh

Secrets can harm you – and expressing these secrets can heal you. This is not a metaphor – it’s a scientific fact. Researchers found out that people who experienced a trauma and kept it secret had worse health than those who experienced a trauma and talked about it.

What’s interesting is that even just writing about a traumatic experience can improve health. So if you have experienced something traumatic that you feel you can’t share with anyone – just writing about it can already help you to better cope with it and improve your health. Even if you burn what you wrote.

Here is an interesting video where James W. Pennebaker talks about the power of expressive writing.

There’s also an article about expressive writing in Psychology Today.

In the video clip above, James Pennebaker gives a person these instructions for expressive writing:

  • For 4 days, write about the most upsetting, traumatic experience of your entire life.
  • In your writing, really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.
  • As you write you might tie this experience to other parts of your life, for example how it might be related to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, with other people now
  • As you write, just keep writing in the flow, don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or spelling.
  • Write for at least 15 minutes at a time on four consecutive days.

It’s also important that you write things out – don’t just ramble in an unclear manner. It should be very specific. Now, again, don’t worry about grammar or mistakes or spelling or writing “right”. But do get all the thoughts, mental images and words from your mind out on paper.

Also note that expressive writing can be very unsettling. If you write about a traumatic experience in your life that you’ve kept to yourself for many years, it might bring up strong emotions and you could feel sadness or anxiety. However, this feeling will also go away, and ultimately the cathartic experience will help to improve your emotional well-being sustainably.

Be compassionate with yourself.

And realize:

when you express your feelings in writings, you’ll also gain more emotional freedom to express yourself.

That doesn’t mean that you will automatically share your feelings with others – but you’ll have more power to chose: do I want to express my emotions? Rather than being inhibited about it.

Developing more emotional maturity will lead to a more fulfilled, joyful, happy and healthy life. Expressive writing is a great first step in that direction.