I have something for you that is effective in supporting healing and strengthening well-being. It can be work, but it’s the fun kind, where you can feel yourself getting somewhere good. Very likely you’ll find it a transformative experience. Are you interested?

I came upon a flyer at my doctor’s office in 2014 that described such an opportunity. It certainly caught my interest! 

How I Got Involved in Expressive Writing

I signed  up for the workshop and saw for myself how taking the time to revision an emotionally disruptive experience can be a healing experience. The workshop provided the facilitation and structure that made this possible.

The event I wrote about was my father’s sudden death from a stroke. I’d thought I’d already moved on from that loss, but it turned out that I still had some work to do. Like many, I’d processed some of the feelings tied to that difficult time, but walled off what I wasn’t ready to deal with. 

Doing this helped me settle feelings of sorrow and guilt that I’d been holding at bay for years. Though I hadn’t realized that I was still carrying that burden, I could feel the difference when I was able to set it down. I was relieved of an irrational self-blame that had lingered. I had kept feeling that I somehow should have known his death was imminent, and should have seen him one more time. But, I now realized, I couldn’t have known that. His death came as surprise to everyone, including the physician who had just released him from a recent hospitalization. I was able to release that self-blame. I felt freer, lighter, calmer;  more able to be fully present in my life. 

Leading 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 with this work.Two  years later I found the training 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. with his colleague, pediatrician Karen Jooste.  

Since then I’ve facilitated expressive writing with coaching clients and for hundreds of workshop participants. Now, as certified facilitator for Dr. Evans’ expanded curriculum, Transform Your Health, Write to Heal. 

What People are Saying

My Transform Your Health: Write to Heal participants’ evaluations show that they find it to  be highly valuable and meaningful. 

This kind of writing helps us  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.

~ Participant

It helped me really forgive myself and let go of something that I thought I had already worked through.

~Participant

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!

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. 

~ Participant

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. 

~ Participant

Comments like these give an insight into the findings of 30+ years of research on the Pennebaker Paradigm, and  other forms of expressive writing. Current studies continue to show that expressive writing contributes measurably to health, resilience and well-being. 

What the Research Shows

The Pennebaker Paradigm 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.

While research results have been mixed (in part due to inconsistencies in study designs and methods) and in general show small to moderate levels of significance, when equivalent results are seen with drug interventions they are considered to be important advances (Baike & Wilhelm, 2005).

That  suggests to me that we can consider expressive writing an important advance! That’s  a lot to say for an inexpensive approach 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).

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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

Photo by sean Kong on Unsplash

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