Expressive Writing: simple DIY writing therapy for painful memories

Expressive Writing: write, shred, write, shred, write, shred: done!

Expressive Writing: write, shred, write, shred, write, shred: done!

Write over your troubles: that was the theme on Day One of our 2018 summer writing school.

In three short sessions, we followed the instructions of Professor James Pennebaker, which have not changed much since his discovery of this extraordinary process many years ago. He calls it Expressive Writing. Interspersed with those three sessions, we did some positive journaling exercises to increase objectivity, empathy, and optimism.

I offered alternatives to the Expressive Writing sessions, but everyone (I think) wrote about a personal experience. We shredded our writing ceremoniously after each session, and we didn’t discuss it: that’s a rule. However, half the members said privately that this had been highly effective for them, helping to free them from something that was hindering their life and writing.


What is Expressive Writing?

Pennebaker had a hunch that simply writing three or four times about a trauma, each time examining the story more closely, would favourably affect people’s health.

In his first experiment, he asked groups of students to write for 20 minutes on three consecutive days about an emotional event that still disturbed them. Each time, they were to express their deepest, most private feelings and thoughts around the event, knowing that nobody would ever see what they wrote. The second time, they were to go deeper and wider, perhaps exploring the context, the impact on themselves and others. And on the last occasion, they were encouraged to try and make sense of the event, using words like because, realize, understand.

Each time, what they wrote was destroyed, and they did not discuss the event or their writing.

He wanted to see if those students then had fewer visits to the doctor in the following year than a control group. Indeed they did, and their grades improved too. And so began a wave of research that confirmed that writing this way, within these constraints, could heal. Over 200 studies have shown measurable healing effects on groups with PTSD, chronic pain, cancer, asthma, psoriasis, and even fresh wounds. Today this form of writing therapy, along with variations, is commonly used in many countries.

Writing often heals, but sometimes picks the scab

Writing has performed its own mysterious therapy from time immemorial. You have almost certainly experienced the magic of writing: it makes you feel better!

However, writing about painful experiences can certainly backfire. I see scores of bloggers writing over and over and over again about the same disturbing event, and chances are that writing is making them feel worse, not better. I’ve done it myself, in a journal: initially it feels exhilarating, but if you carry on, the writing tends to become yukky and counterproductive.

By contrast, Expressive Writing has constraints of time and exposure and theme. That makes all the difference.

Cat playing with shredded paper

All that remains of a painful event: a few shreds of paper.

Why is Expressive Writing better than a diary?

Why does this work better than just writing about painful events in a journal or diary? Well, I don’t know, but these are my thoughts after having experienced both forms.

  • No talking is involved in Expressive Writing. There’s no therapist: you can do it yourself from written instructions.
  • The writing is private, it’s safe, and there’s no threat of exposure.
  • It’s like telling a secret without talking.
  • It’s the opposite of rumination, where an ugly event loops over and over in your mind, each time the same old story, your thoughts running along well-worn ruts. That story might have been comforting at first, reassuring you, getting your version straight. But when it gets stuck, you get stuck.
  • Expressive writing gently encourages people to change their story, to see things in a different light. It’s a therapy for getting unstuck.
  • Expressive writing has a time limit. You make progress — and then you stop. By contrast, writing in a diary has no end. If you keep writing about sad or bad events, it can lure you into an unhealthy cycle of self-pity or self-justification or resentment.

Why does Expressive Writing heal at all?

Nobody seems to know for sure, but these theories are plausible.

  • It relieves stress, especially for those who are troubled by an untold secret.
  • Stress relief improves the immune system.
  • Stress relief improves sleep.

If this interests you, you’ll find ample information about it online, and even a book of instructions:
Expressive Writing: Words That Heal by James Pennebaker and John Evans, on Amazon


26 thoughts on “Expressive Writing: simple DIY writing therapy for painful memories

  1. Rainee says:

    Interesting post! Might even try it out!

    1. Good luck! The instructions are easy to find.

  2. lifecameos says:

    Yes I have caught myself rewriting my life into a quagmire of emotions which I then realised i needed to move on from and get ahead with my life.

    1. I think it’s wonderful that you recognised what was happening and managed to move on. Good work!

      1. lifecameos says:

        Thank you.

  3. Dan Antion says:

    Thats very interesting. Thanks!

    1. I reckon.

  4. Intriguing method … I’ve heard of this being used in trauma cases where they use beta blockers for rereadings.

    1. The beauty of it is that it has no side effects. Rereadings?

      1. I think they take the beta blockers and what they’ve written is read to them before they have another go at writing it down. It’s something to do with the way we take out memories and then, er, repack them …

  5. Gosh, sounds pretty potent. And fascinating. Thanks Dave.

  6. lynnefisher says:

    Some great ideas – I have experience of writing while going through something difficult and it was very helpful, as well as helping to make decisions. I’ve shied away from blogging about too much personal stuff because not wanting to get bogged down in it. Very useful post!

    1. That’s terrific, on all counts. And it’s good to have your own constraints on what to reveal in the very public arena of blogging: I’m with you on that one. Thanks Lynne.

  7. Habiba says:

    Interesting pointers. Well said!

  8. Aunt Beulah says:

    Thank you for introducing me to expressive writing, Rachel. I hadn’t hear of it and, obviously, have never tried it; but I recognized its benefits immediately. I’m going to buy the book. I quite buying books about writing years ago when I quit teaching; but this one will be for me.

    1. I am glad it sounds like a technique that you can use, Janet.

  9. Robyn Haynes says:

    Thanks for sharing the expressive writing workshop Rachel. Like you, I think there are times it just scrapes the scab – maybe before we’re ready for a close examination?

    1. Timing matters, for sure. A d we know when we are ready.

  10. Cherryl says:

    Love this post – writing is good for the soul

    1. Thanks Cherryl — you know this well, I bet.

  11. I think I have done expressive writing without knowing it. I think I got rid of some anger this way and perhaps saved myself from committing murder. However I did not shred – I kept and now from time to time I read it all again. Then I get sad. Should I shred now or has it become a historic document?

    1. Shred it, Judith. Or burn it. Or stomp, spit and pee on it‚ and then destroy it ceremoniously. I am not a therapist, remember, but that’s what I would do, and as usual I’m pretty sure I’m right.

  12. I found this very interesting, partly because I do consider writing my therapy, and partly because my professional background involves helping children who’ve experienced abuse resolve their trauma. If I get to work in a similar field again, I might consider giving this exercise too, for older kids, at least. The reasons you’ve provided about why this works better than a diary make sense. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your comments. As a professional you read my thoughts with a particular wisdom: that’s my reward.

      1. My pleasure! 🙂

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