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Using Expressive Writing May Ease Stress and Trauma

Stress is a part of everyday life. Often, stress can overwhelm an individual and, if internalized, make them lose sleep, become short-tempered, and even develop pervasive psychological and physical illnesses. (Here’s a great post on knowing your stress.)

Trauma is a major stress event in life that causes psychological or physical wounds, altering the way one behaves and conduct one’s life. Psychological trauma, when internalized, can manifest as all sorts of physical illnesses and behavioral issues.

What do internalized stress and trauma have in common to a person suffering from one or both? Energy. Significant amounts of energy. Energy which is used to mitigate the stress that one is feeling or, in the case of trauma, energy used to contain and suppress feelings of pain, anguish or injustice. Expending great amounts of energy to combat stress or suppress trauma can leave one feeling tired, hopeless and depressed.

Good news! There is a tool at your disposal that can help you transfer some of that negative energy onto paper, releasing your feelings and giving you an outlet to gain perspective on your innermost thoughts and concerns. It is called expressive writing and it is often used in personal journaling.

What Is Expressive Writing?

Writing about thoughts or feelings that arise from a stressful or traumatic life event is called expressive writing. The focus in expressive writing is more on feelings than events, memories, objects or people. It can be turbulent and unpredictable, personal and emotional, for you are writing more about how an event made you feel versus about the event itself. And expressive writing forgoes standard writing conventions like punctuation, spelling, and verb agreement.

Expressive writing can be very therapeutic for it gradually gives perspective to stressful and traumatic events in your life, putting structure and organization to anxious feelings, helping you get through it.

Why Use Expressive Writing?

In recent years, research has shown that writing about stressful experiences or emotionally-charged issues in your life can be good for your health and overall well-being. From irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma to Parkinson’s and cancer, expressive writing has been linked to improvements in patient’s health conditions and state of mind. Studies have also shown that expressive writing helps in the recovery process of those suffering from childhood sexual abuse and postpartum depression.

In a 2014 study involving 149 women in a residential treatment program for substance abuse disorders, researchers from the VA Connecticut Healthcare System found that those who engaged in four 20-minute writing sessions (about emotional topics) on consecutive days had greater reductions in the severity of their post-traumatic symptoms, depression, and anxiety after two weeks than participants who wrote about neutral topics.

Expressive writing has also been shown to even promote faster wound healing. Researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand conducted a study in 2013 involving 49 healthy adults, ages 64 to 97. The participants were asked to spend 20 minutes daily for three consecutive days writing about upsetting events in their lives and their daily activities. Two weeks later, the researchers gave participants small puncture wounds on the inside of their upper arms, monitoring the healing process over several days. Eleven days after the wound infliction, 80 percent more those in the expressive writing group fully healed compared to those in the control group.

How To Use Expressive Writing Best To Benefit Your Health

Dr. James W. Pennebaker, the author of “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions” and a groundbreaking researcher in the area of expressive writing, developed a writing prompt (the Pennebaker Writing Prompt) and some guidelines for expressive writing.

First, let’s tackle the guidelines for your writing:

  1. Write a minimum of 20 minutes for four consecutive days. It is important that you follow the time constraints AND the number of consecutive days.
  2. What you choose to write about should be extremely personal and important to you.
  3. Use the entire writing time. If you run out of ideas to write about, keep your pen to the paper and draw lines, or repeat what you have already written.
  4. Do not worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar.
  5. While writing, if you come to a certain event in your life that makes you feel like you are going to melt down, stop writing. You can use a third-person point of view (using “he” or “she”) to maintain composure to help you sort through the distressing event.

Next, let’s take a look at the Pennebaker Writing Prompt:

“In your writing, I would like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts about the most traumatic experience in your entire life. You might tie this trauma to other parts of your life: your childhood, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, relatives, or other people important to you. You might link your writing to your future and who you would like to become, or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. Not everyone has had a single trauma, but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors, and you can write about these as well All your writing is confidential and there should be no sharing of content. Do not worry about form or style, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, or grammar.”

Once you have finished writing, give yourself some time to reflect on what you have written. Be compassionate with yourself. If you are concerned about someone seeing what you have written, put your writings in a safe place or use a digital diary service like Penzu. Alternatively, you can release the emotional content of the writing by burning the writings in a fireplace or firepit.

After one or two weeks following the four days of expressive writings, take some time to reflect on your life, how you feel and your behavior, and pay attention to any differences you notice in these areas.