The process of writing down your thoughts and feelings can be both therapeutic and enlightening. Maybe you’ve experienced this personally because journaling is a frequent practice. Maybe you’ve never journaled because the idea feels too vulnerable.
Expressive writing is a practice that involves writing at least 15 minutes for 3 to 4 consecutive days. Dr. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist and pioneering researcher in expressive writing, suggests writing about something you are thinking or worrying about too much, something that is negatively impacting your life, or something you’ve been avoiding.
Expressive writing differs from basic journaling because you’re not only sharing events that have happened; you’re writing down your unfiltered emotional responses to challenging life events. Pennebaker warns that it’s normal to feel sad after concluding your writing session. However, this temporary discomfort is fleeting, while the health benefits are long-lasting.
Research shows that those who engage in expressive writing experience stronger immune health, better sleep, improved mental health, a happier mood, and reduced chronic pain compared to those who don’t write.
This practice is especially beneficial for those dealing with unresolved trauma from unexpected events. Pennebaker argues, “writing helps to put an experience into perspective. It can help people find meaning… once an emotional upheaval is put into words, it is easier for people to get past it.”
Although the specific processes by which writing improves mental and physical health remains unclear, some longitudinal studies suggest that expressive writing helps create distance between oneself and a distressing situation. This leads to less emotional reactivity and thus fewer physical symptoms.
Find a time of day when you have 15 minutes of uninterrupted time. Maybe that means you wake up just 15 minutes earlier. It doesn’t matter whether you write with a pencil or paper or type on your computer.
If you get stuck picking a topic, here is a list of helpful prompts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Otherwise, I recommend using the prompt Pennebaker and colleagues use most often in their research:
“Over the next four days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?”
The most important thing to remember is to avoid filtering or editing as you go. The act of writing is most beneficial when you don’t get bogged down trying to find the perfect words or sentences at the start. Some people prefer holding onto their writing to edit/add to it later. Others prefer immediately discarding what they wrote and moving on. Find what works best for you.
Writing topics don’t always have to be about difficult life events either. Although the process may begin this way, you might find yourself expressing gratitude, experiencing joy, or uncovering an ambition. You’ll be surprised at how much better equipped you’ll feel to face adversity.