Difficult, disruptive and traumatic life events are part of our shared humanity. These experiences can cause lasting physical, emotional, and behavioral problems or work, academic or relationship difficulties. But it’s possible to heal from the impact of adversity, as the research on expressive writing shows us (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016; Pennebaker & Evans, 2014).
The Drive to Understand
Our natural motivation to work toward meaningful life goals drives us understand the events in our lives and how they influence our ability to work toward those goals.This serves us well most of the time, but not so much when we face disruptive, overwhelming events.
Unpredictable, hard to explain events are especially difficult for us.Trying to make meaning of them can lead to explain them to ourselves through shame and self-blame. Most of the time, we can manage and move on, in spite of the stress involved. But there’s another, ongoing source of difficulty that can linger, even as we move on with our lives.
That’s the stress of keeping painful feelings hidden from ourselves or others, which can have both physical and emotional costs.
Expressive writing helps with this by providing a structure for safely describing what happened, how we felt then and feel now about it, and by letting us organize our thoughts abut it. Writing slows us down. That’s a good thing. It gives us time to see the connections between past events and current thoughts and feelings.
Writing allows us to create order from what was experienced as chaotic. We replace a tangle of thoughts and feelings with a new perspective. We step back to a place from which we can look at the complex causes of the event we experienced, and realize that we can let go of self-blame. From there, we can then look toward the future, envisioning new possibilities.
Writing can help anyone — not just people who consider themselves writers — significantly improve their psychic states and also their physiological well-being.
~ Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing
Writing to Heal: Strategies for Understanding and Meaning Making
There’s a certain kind of writing that can have this impact. It’s available to all of us, not just those who consider ourselves to be writers. Known both as the Pennebaker Paradigm, and as Expressive Writing, it is structured to allow deep, honest self-expression, and to help us understand and make meaning of our experiences. Thousands of studies conducted over more than 30 years show the healing outcomes of the strategies embedded in Pennebaker Paradigm. (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016; Pennebaker & Evans, 2014). These strategies include:
1. Find and express emotion honestly and deeply. Actively repressing our emotions about disruptive or traumatic events is stressful, and can harm our physical and psychological health. And when we cut off access to our feelings about a difficult event, we also lose access to our ability to take effective action, or to let those involved know how they have affected us. Fully expressing our thoughts and feelings brings insight, allowing us make changes in the thoughts, feelings and behaviors linked to the disruptive event.
Kelly, a member of a Transform Your Health: Write to Heal class, commented on how important it was for her to write honestly about her deep anger. “The writing helped me see that it [the event] was behind me. It was no longer necessary to hold on and keep carrying it with me. That was like an epiphany.” (parenthesis added)
2. Find the words. Describing a disruptive or traumatic event in writing, and identifying the related thoughts and feelings activates different parts of the brain, altering the way the memory is stored.This brings important changes to the way we think and make meaning, letting us integrate the event into our sense of self and of the world around us. The act of writing works to simplify and organize the experience, shifting it from a chaotic jumble to a story with a beginning, middle and end. As the story becomes more concise, the thoughts and feelings related to it become more clear.
“As we kept writing,” said Sarah, a Transform Your Health: Write to Heal participant, “I got more and more of a handle on what had happened. I had a new perspective. I felt at peace.”
3. Find a new perspective. Shifting from using the first person pronoun (I) to the second (you) or third person (he/she/they) shifts your perspective. This allows you to move from unhelpful rumination and worry to a more objective view. You gain some emotional distance, from which you can process what happened in a new way.
Evan, a writing group member, commented that, “Everything changed for me when you asked us to switch from writing in the first person to the third person. That simple change had an amazing impact. I realized I could let go of self-blame and anger. I realized I hadn’t caused myself to get beaten up. I could put down that burden and think about how to move forward in my life.”
3. Find the benefits. Wonderful experiences can have downsides. Think of your own examples. Maybe a family reunion, a recent vacation, having a baby, or getting a new job come to mind. Was there an argument, a tense moment, a period of uncertainty? The converse is also true. Even terrible experiences can have benefits. Identifying those positive things, without denying or downplaying the very real difficulties, helps us to heal. As we write about these benefits, we’re likely to increase the number of positive emotion words we’re using. This, along with including negative emotion words as needed, and also using cognitive, or thinking words (such as think, understand, consider, realize) is related better health outcomes from expressive writing.
Nora learned she had an auto-immune disorder. At first she despaired. She had to make a lot of unwanted lifestyle changes, even after her doctor found a combination of treatments that alleviated her symptoms. She wrote: “I hate that I have this disease. But I’m so thankful for my dedicated physician, and for the way my friends and family stepped up to help me with things I’d always done independently before. I realized that I need to get comfortable with asking for and accepting their help. I knew I was loved. I was not alone. That did not cure me, of course, but it gave me tremendous strength and the resilience I needed to cope.”
Give It a Try
Here’s a writing exercise that incorporates these strategies. The writing prompt is called the Pennebaker Paradigm, for James Pennebaker, who pioneered and studied its use beginning in the late 1980s (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016).
Get Ready to Write
- Choose a time and place for your writing when you won’t be interrupted.
- Make yourself a promise to write for about 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Or, plan to write on the same day each week for four weeks in a row.
- Once you start writing, don’t stop until your time is up.
- Write by hand or on an e-device.
- Don’t give a thought to spelling or grammar.
- If you run out of things to say, just write anything until your flow starts again. Don’t worry about unexpected shifts in the direction of your writing.
- You can write about the same event each day, but always moving forward and going deeper.
- Don’t use the exact same words over and over. That kind of rumination is not helpful, and can be harmful.
- I want you to write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the most upsetting experience in your life, one that’s still present in your thoughts, and perhaps in your dreams. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationships with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or to your career. How is this experience linked to you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?
- You might not have had a traumatic experience, but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives. You can write about these. You can write about the same issue each time, or you can write about a different one each time. Just make sure you really let go and explore your very deepest feelings and thoughts, as well as the details of the event.
- You can also choose to use the writing to explore a positive life event, if you wish.
- You can opt to write about a recent experience, rather than a past one. It is best to avoid writing about a crisis that you’re currently in the midst of, though. Choose something you have some distance from. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, stop your writing. You can return to it later, or decide to write about a different experience.
- You can repeat this writing exercise whenever you wish, either going deeper into this same story, or writing about other events in your life.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Smyth, J. M, 2016
- Be sure to protect the privacy of this writing. It is not intended to be shared. It is for you, and it might have negative consequences to have it read by others.
- People sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed for a short time after writing. This usually goes away within a couple of hours, as when you see a sad movie. If you find yourself starting to get very upset as you write, take care of yourself by stopping, or by changing topics.
- Observe the “flip out rule” – if your reaction is becoming too intense, stop writing. Return to it later, and if you prefer, change the topic you’re writing about.
Benefits of Expressive Writing
Like me and my like coaching clients and writing class participants, over time you’re likely to experience the some or all of these benefits found through the research on expressive writing:
- A sense of relief, of having let go of a burden.
- Self-discovery and insight.
- An integration of spirit, psyche and emotion.
- Improvements in school or workplace performance.
- Better sleep.
- Less need to call or see your physician.
- Improvements in social relationships.
- Positive changes in immune system and/or in markers of chronic illness.
- An improved mood and sense of well-being.
You may notice other benefits as well. Keep track, and remember that returning to this writing exercise periodically will be helpful.
In the midst of our busy lives, it can be hard to put an intent to write into action. You don’t have to write on your own. I provide facilitation, process and prompts. We all offer one another support and encouragement. Join Transform Your Health: Write to Heal, a 6-week online class offering the opportunity to write privately, in the respectful and supportive presence of others. Sign up now so that one of the 8 spots can be yours!
DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a way of healing. How telling our stories transforms our lives. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J. F. (2014). Expressive writing: Words that heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor, Inc.
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.
Photo by Chandler Cruttenden on Unsplash