information for transformational people

writing 246The positive effects of expressive writing 

From The Imagine Project

Many of us are given negative ideas about our ability to write. Whether we are told that it needs to be perfect or perfectionism comes from within, we may struggle with vocabulary, grammar, and organising our thoughts. We are rarely given the chance to simple write from our hearts without worrying about spelling and punctuation. Yet, when we begin to write from a perspective of speaking our truth – a story, a challenge, or experience that is sitting in our hearts – something happens. At first it might feel emotional; thinking and writing about a painful event can be difficult to do. But once the flow begins, it can be freeing and empowering.

Expressive writing or journaling also has a healing quality, encouraging writers to process and find meaning from a difficult life circumstance, to let it go, and to create a new story for their lives. This kind of writing also allows the writers to feel seen, heard, and validated. And it feels empowering when they realize how far they’ve come and how resilient they truly are.

For over 20 years, researchers have been studying the effects of expressive writing. In most studies, participants are asked to take 15 to 30 minutes to write about an emotionally challenging, even traumatic incident in their lives. Typically, they are asked to do this once a day for three to five days. Even though the time spent writing can be emotional and make the writer feel vulnerable, the long-term benefits are positive.

Research has found that expressive writing can:

  • improve school grades
  • improve working memory
  • improve writing skills
  • decrease school dropout rates
  • enhance immune function (fewer illnesses and fewer trips to the doctor)
  • decrease blood pressure
  • promote wound healing after surgery
  • decrease anxiety and depression
  • help people feel better about life, and
  • lessen post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms.

Study measurements were done months, even years, after the writing exercise and positive results still existed.

James Pennebaker, PhD and Joshua Smyth, PhD can be considered the fathers of expressive writing. Their research has been foundational for understand how, and why expressive writing works. In their latest book, Opening Up and Writing It Down, they explore the healing benefits of expressive writing.

By writing down what happened (or is happening), we can organize our thoughts and verbalise the stress or trauma we’ve experienced, which allows us to confront, understand, make some sense of it, and gain perspective. We can find meaning in difficult experiences through the written word, as putting our stories on paper can shed light on our problems and release the tension of keeping them in the dark. In contrast, holding in negative experiences and feelings merely creates more stress, anxiety, depression, or self-destructiveness.

When troubles are kept under cover, they remain unprocessed, take up too much space, and prevent us from moving forward. Being “stuck” only perpetuates cycles of dysfunction, such as abuse, addiction, and poverty, generation after generation. Fortunately, expressive writing is an effective tool that can help us process and let go of our stories, so we aren’t defined or limited by them. Expressive writing inspires us to imagine new possibilities, pursue our goals more effectively, and find a higher calling in our lives.

Expressive writing:

  • processes experiences by using language for expression.
  • helps clear thoughts and feelings.
  • gives insight into the event(s) – the how and why.
  • simplifies the experience.
  • brings meaning and closure.
  • boosts the ability to pursue goals.

To promote a client’s healing after a stressful or traumatic experience, a therapist will follow a process with three primary goals:

  • allow the emotional expression of all feelings attached to the incident, felt then and now.
  • help the client process the experience and understand what happened.
  • support the client in rewriting their story, i.e., reframing the event so they can move forward and see new possibilities in their lives.

The beauty of expressive writing is that it facilitates all of these therapeutic steps toward healing, including imagining a new story. Expressive writing is not necessarily a stand-alone tool for treatment of trauma, but it can help facilitate the process of healing after mild or moderate stress and trauma. In cases of extreme trauma, consult with a skilled mental health practitioner whenever possible, in addition to using the expressive writing process.

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From The Imagine Project, 19/06/2019

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