Expressive writing has been studied since the 1970's when Dr James Pennebaker used this method to see if there were any reported benefits for students attending post-secondary education. He was looking for a way for individuals to unburden themselves about their deepest thoughts and feelings around the things that were bothering them. Expressive writing allowed participants to do this in a safe and effective way, as they didn't have to worry about how another person would react and they could freely write what they maybe felt ashamed or guilty about. The results were impressive and have been replicated in thousands of studies since then, with different age groups and sub-populations.
The most commonly reported benefits are as follows:
- Stronger Immune Systems
- Improved Sleep
- Better Regulated Blood Pressure
- Reduced Pain Caused By Chronic Illnesses
- Increased Feelings of Wellbeing & Capacity to Handle Life Events (aka Resilience)
The process of expressive writing goes like this:
Set aside 15 - 20 minutes for three consecutive days to write about the things that are bothering you.
Go into your deepest thoughts and feelings about these issues, and freely write them out. These may include parts that you haven't shared or wouldn't necessarily tell another person.
You may start by focusing on a single issue and find that it goes to other issues or earlier experiences. That's okay. Allow the writing to flow.
While this process may be contrary to what you have learned in some brain retraining programs, there is a lot of evidence to support the notion that we need to release the emotions that are caught in our nervous system in order to improve our health and be able to effectively regulate our nervous system on an ongoing basis. This process is different from venting, or being stuck in a limbic system loop. This is not about complaining about other people or the things we don't like, but rather writing about how these things affect us, what our thoughts and perhaps even fears or worries are around these topics. The places where we get stuck, or judge ourselves, or feel uncertain; the things that our mind ruminates about and gets caught in. By writing it out, we are able to externalize it and often we come to a different perspective or relationship with it. This allows our nervous system to settle so that we can make better headway in our retraining.
Keep in mind this is a brief intervention: 3 or 4 days at the most. You can follow up this process with a round of practice or an activity that elevates your emotions, to redirect the brain away from the topic once the writing process is finished for the day. You can revisit this tool at different times, as needed. While it may stir your system up slightly during the process, the long lasting health benefits make it a worthwhile (and sometimes necessary) process in order to achieve lasting resilience and a greater window of tolerance for life and its stressors.
If you wish to dive deeper into understanding & engaging with this process, consider Pennebaker & Smythe's book "Opening up by Writing it down", 3rd edition.
Until next time!
If you have a question, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Candy Widdifield is Registered Clinical Counsellor, Wellness Coach, and Registered Reiki Master Teacher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. Her modalities include coaching, therapy, Reiki and the Safe & Sound Protocol. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com