Writing helps us learn, process and in some cases it can be highly therapeutic as it benefits our physical and psychological health. Expressive writing can be extremely helpful for those in recovery from a mental health disorder, addiction or co-occurring conditions as it uses the act of writing as therapy. It allows a person to express their thoughts and feelings in a way that helps them process through their experiences. The help offered through expressive writing has been effective for at least the past 20 years.
How does it work?
This initial idea of expressive writing was developed by Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s. Pennebaker’s theory was essentially based on the idea that actively inhibiting thoughts and feelings about traumatic events required effort which was a cumulative stressor on the body and increased physiological activity, obsessive thinking and longer-term disease. Pennebaker created a basic writing paradigm that asked participants to write for 15 minutes each day for four consecutive days. The writing would focus on the most traumatic or upsetting experiences of their lives. The result was that participants experienced significant benefits in both the objectively assessed and self-reported physical health four months later. This meant less visits to the health center and fewer days of illness.
The main idea is to focus on writing about feelings rather than events, memories, objects or people. While expressive writing may sometimes include story-like components such as a beginning, middle and an end, it will more often be turbulent and unpredictable. Expressive writing is based less on writing about what has happened and more about how someone feels about what has happened.
How does it help?
Expressive writing has the ability to help people with certain physical problems such as asthma or even those with problems sleeping, PTSD or a history of trauma. While expressive writing can be beneficial in the long run for many people it may not work for everyone. Specifically, it is less beneficial for adult survivors of childhood abuse and some Vietnam vets.
Despite this, expressive writing will often create positive results. These can be both physical and psychological, despite the fact that people may often feel upset or distressed during the time in which they are writing about their traumatic event. This increase in distress, negative moods and physical symptoms, however, is both temporary and lasts for a short period. At the same time, these writings are normally more personal, meaningful and emotional and produce positive results in the long term.
Expressive writing can cause initial short-term negative reactions. However, for the people who continuously engage in expressive writing, there will be long-term positive benefits such as health, social and behavioral benefits. Health benefits include fewer stress-related doctor visits, improved immunity to disease, reduced blood pressure, improved liver and lung function, improved mood, feelings of greater psychological well-being and fewer symptoms of avoidance. Other social and behavioral improvements included less absenteeism from work, quicker re-employment after not having a job, improved memory, improved performance in sports, higher grades and differences in social and linguistic behavior. Expressive writing is meant to counteract the stress of inhibiting emotions. It does so by acknowledging said inhibiting emotions in order to reduce the physiological toll they take and thus lowering stress.
This form of writing can be useful when dealing with patients who have experienced trauma during their treatment. Due to the fact that trauma may cause substance abuse in some cases, it may help to use expressive writing after a period of detox to deal with the trauma and thus deal with what is an underlying cause for the substance abuse.