Expressive writing involves writing about your thoughts, feelings and experiences—not what you did today or a blow-by-blow travelogue of your last trip, but your deepest emotions about yourself, your life and events from your past or present. There’s no need to worry about sentence structure, spelling or grammar – just write from the heart and let it all out. Studies have shown a variety of therapeutic benefits.
Writing helps free up space on your mental hard drive.
Psychologist Dr. James Pennebaker, a pioneer in the field of using expressive writing as therapy, says that “Writing really forces a structure that your mind doesn’t have. It allows you to start putting things together” in order to better understand your experience. Psychotherapist and journaling expert Maud Purcell notes that the process also removes mental blocks, in part by engaging the analytical left hemisphere of the brain and freeing up the right brain for creativity, feeling and intuition.
Some writing each day keeps the doctor away.
Research has shown that expressive writing can lower blood pressure, boost immune system function, enhance memory, improve lung function in asthmatics, lessen distress from migraines, and even reduce irritable bowel symptoms. When gastroenterologist Dr. Albena Halpert asked 103 IBS patients to put their thoughts and emotions about their condition on paper, for example, the 82 that successfully completed 30-minute writing sessions for four consecutive days displayed substantial improvements in the severity of their disease as well as their negative thoughts related to it.
Putting trauma into words can help ease the pain.
“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives,” says Dr. Pennebaker. “You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are—our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves. Writing helps us focus and organize the experience.” Users of JamBios, a digital writing platform for sharing and saving memories, have used the site to work through traumatic experiences like amnesia, childhood trauma and drug addiction. In some cases, they have found it so therapeutic that they have submitted their entries to the site’s public gallery to share their healing with others.
Expressive writing can make you a star student… or employee of the month.
Writing about a traumatic experience for just 15-20 minutes a day for three or four days has been shown to result in positive mental changes, including less stress and anxiety, decreased depressive symptoms and greater psychological well-being. Participants in studies on expressive writing have also reported less absenteeism from work, fewer errors in tasks, improvements in school grades, richer social lives, better ability to get a job, and an overall increase in life enjoyment.
Examining your experiences can rewire your brain.
In a manner similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, writing can change your thoughts, which in turn can change your emotions and your actions. Health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, PhD, conducted an intensive study on the subject with her student Phil Ullrich. According to their findings, people who tried to find significance in their traumatic experiences through writing displayed greater awareness of the bright side of an upsetting event. “You need focused thought as well as emotions,” says Lutgendorf. “An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
Writing it down can build you up.
Using writing to confront your demons can make you a more resilient person. Sue, a woman who has used the JamBios reminiscing platform to express her thoughts about her painful past, says that writing has been a “safety valve” and “means of catharsis” since her early teens. “It (writing) doesn’t have to measure up to anyone’s standard of good, not even your own,” she says. “It’s just about transferring the pain from your head where it can build up to dangerous, potentially lethal levels, into a safe space where you can look at it and gain some perspective.”
About the Author:Beth N. Carvin is a business executive, entrepreneur and researcher. She is the CEO of Nobscot Corporation, an enterprise software company that helps companies retain employees and manage corporate mentoring programs. She is an expert in human resources and diversity and has been a keynote speaker and panelist at numerous events across the nation. Her newest venture, JamBios , helps people enjoy reminiscing and writing the stories from their life, together with friends and family. Originally from Boston, for the past 27 years she has been living her best life on the islands of Hawaii.