July 13, 2015

Seeking counseling from a therapist is one of the most common recommendations for people who are struggling to cope with a recent emotional upheaval or with past traumas. Yet writing therapy, or expressive writing, has proven to be a powerful, free, and easily accessible remedy for both the mind and the body.

Writing is a form of expressive therapy that uses the process of creative writing to cope with and heal from emotional trauma. The relationship between expressive writing and healing was first studied by Dr. James Pennebaker in the late 1980s, whose seminal study revealed striking benefits of writing about trauma.

In Pennebaker’s experiment, participants in the experimental group were instructed to write their deepest feelings and thoughts about a past trauma or emotional upheaval, while participants in the control group were instructed to simply write factually about superficial or neutral topics, without engaging with their emotions. Both groups wrote for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Surprisingly, measurements of the participants’ cellular immune-system function and health center visits revealed that participants in the experimental group showed improved immune-system functioning (as evidenced by increased lymphocyte response) and had less visits to the health center in the following months than the control group.

The results of Pennebaker’s study suggest that confronting traumatic experiences is physically beneficial. It has long been assumed that inhibiting or repressing one’s feelings or thoughts negatively affects one’s health and can lead to long-term stress.

Coming to Terms with ‘Why?’

We seek to make sense of our experiences in life. When an unexpected trauma or emotional upheaval occurs – whether it is the death of a loved one, the sudden loss of employment and stability, or grave physical harm – we have an inherent desire to make sense of it all. We want to understand why it happened, and what to do next.

When we write about psychologically upsetting experiences, we actively confront the event and the emotions it has engendered. We are able to give perspective to the experience and its relation to the rest of our lives by opening up about the trauma and constructing an understandable narrative of what occurred. In this way, expressive writing is much like excising a wound – rather than obsessively ruminating about the event in a manner that yields no answers, thus allowing the painful experience to fester and possibly lead to mental health problems, expressive writing allows us to cognitively confront, process, and heal from the pain.

Visible Evidence

Pennebaker’s original expressive writing paradigm has been replicated in hundreds of studies, each measuring different potential effects of expressive writing. One such study examined the effect of expressive writing on wound healing in older adults. In the study, the experimental group engaged in expressive writing for 20 minutes a day for 3 consecutive days, while the control group wrote about daily activities. Two weeks after witting, all participants were given a biopsy wound on the inner arm. Surprisingly, participants in the expressive writing condition had a greater portion of the wound healed (76%) than did those in the control group (only 42% healed) after a period of 11 days.

It is important to understand that keeping a diary or writing about a traumatic event isn’t the same as expressive writing and will not yield the same health benefits. Simply ruminating about an emotional upheaval can actually negatively impact one’s health, and writing about trauma too soon after it occurred can be emotionally overwhelming. To write about the same traumatic experience over and over again is similarly detrimental – rather, deeply engaging with the writing in a way that truly evaluates the experience over a few consecutive days has proven to be the best way to process and heal.

Another study by Pennebaker examined the immunological effects of thought suppression, and involved participants writing about either nonemotional or emotional events with or without thought suppression. The results demonstrated a significant increase in total lymphocytes and overall immune system functioning in the emotional writing groups, while the participants in the thought suppression condition displayed a significant decrease in lymphocyte levels. This research suggests that thought suppression negatively impacts the immune system, while dealing with emotional trauma through expressive writing can actually improve immune system functioning.

No Appointment Necessary

Expressive writing is a free, simple, and readily available way to take care of our health and prevent the mental and physical harms caused by the stress of emotional upheaval. It can help us to cope with a number of neuroses, including depression, the pain of major life traumas such as bereavement, violence, or a sudden diagnosis of a serious illness. Expressive writing promotes healing, and can help us to better control our emotions, to stop ruminating or obsessing about a traumatic event and instead derive meaning from what happened.

By Meg O’Connor

The Foundation for Art & Healing