I have something for you that is known to be effective in supporting healing and improving health. It can be hard work, but it’s the fun kind of hard. You’ll make some important discoveries, and will very likely find it a transformative experience. Are you interested?
When I came upon a flyer at my doctor’s office that described such an opportunity, it certainly caught my interest.
Getting Involved in Expressive Writing
That interest led me to join the workshop. I experienced for myself how revisiting a past, emotionally disruptive experience could be a healing experience, even though I’d seen it as something from the past that I’d moved on from. The event I chose to write about was my father’s sudden death due to a stroke.
Doing this helped me settle feelings of sorrow and guilt that I’d been holding at bay for years. I hadn’t realized that I was still carrying that burden, but I could tell the difference when I was able to set it down. I felt relieved of self-blame, because rationally or not, I’d felt I somehow should have known, and should have seen him once more before his death. Relieved of that, I felt freer, lighter, calmer and more able to be fully present in my life.
Learning to Lead Others in Writing for Health
I felt called to share this powerful approach with others, and was confident that with training I would be able to make an important difference for others. I started looking for training opportunities, and two years later found the right opportunity: Leading Others in Writing for Health. It was held at Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine, and taught by by author, educator and writing clinician John Evans, Ed.D. and his colleague, pediatrician Karen Jooste.
I left that training brimming with ideas for offering expressive writing to others. Since then I’ve facilitated it with coaching clients, and for hundreds of workshop participants, drawing general audiences and those who work in or run service-centered business and nonprofits.
This year I’ve had the exciting opportunity to take advanced certification in teaching Dr. Evans’ class Transform Your Health, Write to Heal. I’ve offered this 6-week expressive writing class to cancer survivors and caregivers at GBMC and to creative solopreneurs and to nonprofit professionals and volunteers.
What People are Saying
Like me, my Transform Your Health: Write to Heal participants’ evaluations show that they find it to be highly valuable and meaningful.
There’s no doubt that this kind of writing is work. It’s the fun kind of work though; the kind where you make discoveries, gain insights and feel joy and excitement about moving forward.
It can be difficult at times to do the things you ask us to do, but it feels very exploratory, and that feels good.
It helped me really forgive myself and let go of something that I thought I had already worked through.
Writing privately, in the company of supportive others, provides the safety to explore past disruptive or traumatic experiences and gain perspective on them.
Being in the company of others and hearing what they shared allowed me to embrace what I have experienced. Now that I’ve participated I think a little differently. I have a different slant. I’m more positive.
~ Kelly Hill-Ross, Ross/Isabelle Productions, Inc
As much as this kind of writing is hard work, it’s also deeply satisfying, and even fun!
The experience was such a good one. My creativity was sparked in a big way when we did the poetic writing. It was different than the other sessions and so a different quality of awareness came up.
The class provides time protected for self-reflection and deepened awareness. Not only does this allow the opportunity to heal from past traumatic or disruptive events, it can heighten appreciation for the gifts in our lives.
I noticed all of the layers of events and things from my history that this brought up. Some things I haven’t even thought about in years. I found these to be very happy events to reflect on — and realize that all of these things are a part of who I am today. I need to step out of the pressurized atmosphere I sometimes live in — and acknowledge these wonderful events in my life as things that have made me who I am.
Comments like these give an insight into the findings of 30+ years of research on the Pennebaker Paradigm, and other forms of expressive writing. These studies continue to show that expressive writing contributes measurably to health, resilience and well-being.
What the Research Shows
The Pennebaker Paradigm is a form of expressive writing. It was pioneered by psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker and colleagues in the 1980’s, has been studied extensively since then. He and a multidisciplinary, international group of researchers continue building a strong body of evidence about its effectiveness.
The Pennebaker Paradigm has been shown to:
- Reduce high blood pressure, improve lung function for those with asthma, and to decrease pain for people with rheumatoid arthritis and with cancer, and improves health-related quality of life. It decreases illness-related doctors’ visits and calls by as much as 50%.
- Improve mental health issues, including signs of depression, some PTSD symptoms, and signs of anxiety.
- Decrease time to re-employment after job loss.
- Improve academic performance.
- Enhance social relationships.
Research results have been mixed (in part due to inconsistencies in study designs and methods) and generally show small to moderate levels of significance. Importantly, when equivalent results are seen with drug interventions, they are considered to be important advances (Baike & Wilhelm, 2005). I think that’s a lot to say for an inexpensive approach that people find valuable and that can be made readily available.
How Does Expressive Writing Work?
Telling a coherent story about a past trauma and linking one’s true thoughts and feelings to that event creates a healing opportunity for the writer. While we don’t know exactly how this works, one theory is that holding back disclosure of a traumatic or disruptive experience negatively affects body and mind, while disclosure has beneficial effects (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016).
- There is physical work involved in avoiding the memories, thoughts and feelings related to a serious adverse experience. When we don’t express our experience with an emotionally disruptive event either verbally or in writing, that physical work of holding back leads to short-term biological changes which affects our health over time.
- Holding back from describing a past disruptive or traumatic event affects our thinking abilities. Without putting the experience into words, we can’t organize the event in our minds or integrate it into our lives.This can keep us from understanding what happened, and can lead to anxiety, rumination, disturbing dreams and other thought disturbances.
- Disclosure immediately reduces the stress of keeping a secret. If after disclosing we continue bringing into awareness all that happened to us and how we were affected, we can resolve emotional upheavals, which lowers our overall stress level.
- As we disclose, we have to rethink events. This helps us understand them and eventually to integrate them into the fabric of our lives.Translating an event from one that is stored chaotically to one that is a coherent story helps us better understand and ultimately move forward from that experience.
This is quite the opposite of the cultural message we often hear in the US, that “staying positive” is the way to be happy, healthy, and successful in life. Positive feelings are wonderful, but forcing positivity is not.
Allowing ourselves to think about, feel and express what has happened to us during times of upheaval or trauma, acknowledging how we’ve been affected by them, and finding what, if anything, about them has been beneficial lets us use what we’ve been through on our own and others’ behalf. That is how writing can promote healing for ourselves and ultimately for this wounded but still beautiful world of ours.
Discover the Power of Expressive Writing
Are you feeling drawn to try expressive writing? Join us for the upcoming session of Transform Your Health: Write to Heal. Discover the power of writing privately, in the supportive company of others. This class is offered online, through zoom.us video call.
References and Credits
Baike, K.A., Wilhelm, K.(2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (11), 338-346.
Glass, O., Dreusicke, M., Evans, J., Bechard, E., & Wolever R.Q.(2019). Expressive writing to improve resilience to trauma: A clinical feasibility trial. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice (34), 2019.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down. How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J. F. (2014). Expressive writing: Words that heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor, Inc