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.
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