Research suggests that writing about stressful experiences results in better health and psychological well-being. In Julie’s research work at UCLA, she published an article about how expressive writing could help persons living with HIV improve their coping and immune health. Since that research study was published, it has been cited countless times and referred to in many mainstream articles. This type of writing is not just any old ranting and raving, or a like a journal that you might use to describe your daily events, Expressive Writing, as it was originally studied by James Pennebaker, is a type of deep emotional writing with a very specific prompt. In most of the research studies in this area, including Julie’s, the control group also wrote, but did not receive the same positive health benefits including improved immune health. This is because they were using descriptive journalistic writing (rather than emotional writing) as a prompt; such neutral writing does not get at one’s deeper emotional life which may be repressed in the body.
If you are feeling compressed, dealing with chronic health issues, or have some type of emotional trauma in your history, Expressive Writing might be just the thing for you.
Here are the instructions for Expressive Writing (these instructions are from James Pennebaker):
For the next 15 minutes, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now? Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar — just let it flow.
(Warning: Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.)
Here are some links to articles that discuss the variety of benefits of Expressive Writing:
Here are some recommended books on emotional writing and to help writers with writer’s block:
Adams, Kathleen (1998). The Way of the Journal : A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing. Sidron Press.
Baldwin, Christina (1992). One to One : Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing. Evans Publisher
DeSalvo, Louise A. (2000). Writing As a Way of Healing : How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Beacon Press.
Fox, John (1997). Poetic Medicine : The Healing Art of Poem-Making. Tarcher Press
Goldberg, Natalie and Guest, Judith (1986). Writing Down the Bones : Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala Press.
Jacobs, Beth (2005). Writing for Emotional Balance, New Harbinger Publishers.
Pennebaker, James W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. NY: Guilford Press.
Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval._ Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Press.
Rainer, Tristine (1979). The New Diary : How to Use a Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity. Tarcher