By Kira M. Newman / 11.17.2016
Do you keep a diary in good times or bad? According to researchers James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth, most journalers tend to fall squarely in one of the two categories: Either they write regularly until adversity hits, then can’t continue; or they only put pen to paper when they’re feeling down.
I fall in the latter category, and at some point I worried that my journals were getting pretty grim. Did I really want to look back and read tales of stress, uncertainty, and loss? But it turns out I was inadvertently engaging in a practice called Expressive Writing, one that has been the subject of hundreds of studies in the past thirty years. And according to that body of research, writing about your deepest struggles can have a positive impact on health and well-being.
In a new edition of their book Opening Up by Writing It Down, Pennebaker and Smyth survey the scientific history of Expressive Writing, its benefits, and how to make it work for you. When you feel stuck, this powerful writing practice can get all those painful thoughts and feelings out of your head, starting the process of healing.
How to do Expressive Writing
The basic instructions for Expressive Writing go something like this: Write continuously for 20 minutes about your deepest emotions and thoughts surrounding an emotional challenge in your life. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie it to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved, or even your career.
To get the most out of this exercise, it helps to carve out quiet time and space to go deep. The goal is to gain insights and see new connections among your feelings, not to just vent with a pen. Although study participants sometimes write about big traumas and shameful secrets—from child abuse to their experiences at war—you can also write about whatever is frustrating or preoccupying you at the moment.
For example, here are some variations on Expressive Writing that Pennebaker and Smyth recommend:
- Writing for Problem Solving: Write for 10 minutes about a personal problem, then read your writing and identify the key obstacles you’re facing. Write about those obstacles for another 10 minutes and again read your writing. Finally, write for 10 more minutes synthesizing what you’ve learned.
- Before bed, journal about your worries and concerns—you might find that you fall asleep faster!
- Write down the word “Stress,” and do a word association: What word or topic does it bring to mind? What word or topic does that new one bring to mind? Do this successively and then see if you can gain insight into what stress means to you.
Although the traditional advice is to write for 20 minutes, four days in a row, research suggests that even writing for a few minutes can be beneficial. Pennebaker and Smyth do recommend trying at least two sessions, even if you only wait 10 minutes in between, because that break time allows your brain to process and integrate. Although some people choose to explore the same issue over and over, finding new angles every time, others write about different topics during each session.
Could Expressive Writing ever be harmful? Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly who benefits the most from this practice. Some evidence, by no means conclusive, suggests that it’s most helpful to people who have the least opportunity or inclination to disclose their feelings in daily life; other research suggests that Expressive Writing might not be helpful when the trauma is too recent or ongoing.
For now, you are your best guide here; if writing feels right, do it. If you don’t feel like you’re ready, or writing feels ruminative, or if it’s keeping you from making important changes in your life, then it might not be doing you any good.
Why practice Expressive Writing?
As you might imagine, sitting down and writing about fear, sadness, or anger isn’t the most pleasant experience—which is perhaps why even some regular diary writers can’t bring themselves to do it. Studies do suggest that Expressive Writing can make you feel sad and anxious immediately afterward, but the long-term effects are a different story.
In the earliest studies of Expressive Writing, researchers invited participants to write about a trauma in their life or about superficial topics for four days in a row. Compared to the superficial writers, the expressive writers felt a greater sense of meaning afterward, showed better immune function six weeks later, and had fewer doctor visits in the half year following the experiment. Exactly how Expressive Writing improves health is still being explored today, decades later, but it essentially appears to buffer against the deleterious effects of stress and rumination.
Expressive Writing could even help you get a job. In another study, engineers who had recently been laid off wrote about their thoughts and feelings around the layoff. Seven months later, more than half of them had a new job—three times as many compared to groups who wrote about time management or didn’t write at all. The participants in each group went on roughly the same number of interviews, so what was going on? Researchers believed that the Expressive Writing engineers had worked through their anger, so they probably made a better impression in interviews when discussing their former employer.
Expressive Writing might be useful after another major life change: entering college. Research suggests that it can help new students cope with the transition to university, with health benefits lasting up to four months. In fact, it can even improve working memory as well as grades and standardized test scores—good news for stressed-out freshmen.
The most exciting benefits of Expressive Writing may be for people who suffer from mental health issues or chronic disease. According to one study, people suffering from depression may see reductions in their symptoms up to one month after trying this practice, and there’s also some evidence that it could help with post-traumatic stress disorder. Expressive Writing may bring relief to those with asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome; help people reduce their high blood pressure; boost immune function in patients with HIV; and improve quality of life for cancer and heart attack patients.
Why does Expressive Writing work?
“We still don’t have a solid explanation of why [Expressive Writing] does and doesn’t work,” admit Pennebaker and Smyth. But preliminary studies, and comments from scores of study participants, are starting to piece together a story: There’s something powerful about translating our experiences into words—and not keeping them buried inside.
In the famous book Getting Things Done, author David Allen argues that to-do lists are essential because they get tasks out of our heads, freeing up space for more important thoughts; our creative ideas no longer have to jostle for attention alongside “buy lettuce at ShopRite.”
A similar process may be going on with negative experiences, Pennebaker and Smyth suggest. If we let painful thoughts rattle around in our heads, they seem to constantly resurface and demand our attention, hoping to be resolved and processed. “One reason we often obsess about a disturbing experience is that we are trying to understand it,” they explain.
When we finally sit down and try to make sense of it in writing, we may find that our thoughts settle down. Our experience becomes more of a narrative, and we can observe it with a bit more detachment. That frees up the mind for healthier things, like getting a good night’s sleep and really connecting with others.
When we put our thoughts and feelings down on paper, we’re not just transferring them—we’re also transforming them. Writing forces us to arrange our ideas into a sequence, one after another; over time, themes and patterns start to emerge; new insights and perspectives start to bubble up: Ah yes, that’s why I felt so hurt when she said that or This has happened before—why do I seem to be sabotaging myself?
Researchers have done textual analysis on Expressive Writing samples, and they found a fascinating pattern: The participants who see the most benefits use an increasing number of cognitive words—effect, reason, realize, know—in successive writing sessions. You can literally see them shifting from feeling and suffering to thinking and understanding over time. (Interestingly, the ones who use lots of cognitive words from the very beginning don’t fare well; they seem to be stuck in a rut, not engaging as deeply with their feelings.)
Of course, as the authors admit, the best thing we can do in times of trouble is to share our thoughts and feelings with people we trust. But that isn’t always possible; sometimes a secret isn’t ours to share, or we’re too fearful of how others will respond. In those cases, writing is the next best thing: a way to share without sharing, to disclose without judgment, to process in private. And if your journal looks a bit like mine—struggle after struggle—that’s nothing to be ashamed of.