20 minutes per day for four consecutive days
How to Do It
Over the next four days, write down your deepest emotions and thoughts about an emotional challenge that has been affecting your life. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. Write continuously for 20 minutes.
Tips for writing:
- Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Write continuously for at least 20 minutes.
- Don’t worry about spelling or grammar.
- Write only for yourself.
- Write about something extremely personal and important to you.
- Deal only with events or situations you can handle now—that is, don’t write about a trauma too soon after it has happened if it feels too overwhelming.
- Optional final step: After the four days of writing, try writing from the perspectives of other people involved in the event or situation.
Why You Should Try It
Most of us have gone through times of great stress and emotional upheaval. This exercise gives you a simple, effective way to deal with these challenges and the difficult feelings they bring up. Research suggests that completing this exercise can increase happiness, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, strengthen the immune system, and improve work and school performance. These benefits have been shown to persist for months.
Why It Works
When we experience a stressful event or major life transition, it’s easy to ruminate over that experience; thinking about it can keep us up at night, distract us from work, and make us feel less connected to others. Expressive writing allows us to step back for a moment and evaluate our lives. Through writing, we can become active creators of our own life stories—rather than passive bystanders—and as a result feel more empowered to cope with challenges. Transforming a messy, complicated experience into a coherent story can make the experience feel more manageable.
Evidence That It Works
Pennebaker, J.W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239-245.
Compared with a control group who wrote about superficial topics, participants who wrote about traumatic experiences for four consecutive days reported greater happiness three months later, visited the doctor less than usual during the six weeks after, and seemed to have a healthier immune system.
Who Has Tried the Practice?
While there is no demographic information in the study above, additional studies explore how this exercise benefits different groups and cultures:
- American psychiatric outpatients and people with mood disorders decreased in anxiety and depression after several sessions of Expressive Writing.
- Women undergraduate students in the U.K. who completed three Expressive Writing sessions reduced in eating disorder symptoms.
- Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people (mostly white or Asian American) who did Expressive Writing about a time they received hate speech became more resistant to stress.
- Gay and bisexual men who did Expressive Writing about their sexuality daily for three days improved in emotional well-being, became more open with their sexual orientation, depended less on illicit drugs, and reported more safe sex behaviors.
- Bilingual British undergraduates whose first language was Korean or Spanish improved in social well-being after four days of Expressive Writing, especially if they alternated between writing in English and their native language.
- Latino American and Chinese undergraduates engaged in up to three consecutive daily sessions of writing about a traumatic experience and showed reductions in trauma symptoms.
- American undergraduates, American war veterans, and British people who experienced psychosis (all with post-traumatic stress disorder) spent up to four consecutive days doing Expressive Writing about their trauma and showed mental health improvements.
- Chinese undergraduates who completed eight weekly Expressive Writing sessions reported improvements in psychological, social, and physical health.
- Japanese undergraduates who did three days of Expressive Writing improved in working memory capacity (a sign of mental health).
- British, Swiss, Italian, and Iranian mothers who recently gave birth engaged in up to 10 writing sessions in the hospital and reported reductions in maternal post-traumatic stress and depression.
- Female survivors of intimate partner violence, women with histories of childhood sexual abuse, and women with substance abuse disorders decreased in mental health symptoms after completing several sessions of Expressive Writing.
- People with various disabilities and diseases, including people who have experienced seizures, heart attacks, chronic pain, respiratory disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, kidney transplants, and various cancers (including breast cancer in white Americans, Chinese Americans, Chinese nationals, and Romanians) improved in mental or physical health after Expressive Writing.
More research is needed to explore whether, and how, the impact of this practice extends to other groups and cultures.
Keep in Mind
Some studies have found no changes in mental or physical health after a few days of Expressive Writing, for older adults in New Zealand, Danish breast cancer survivors, and colon and rectal cancer patients. The benefits of Expressive Writing may also vary based on gender, personality, or cultural experience:
- Expressive Writing may be more beneficial for women than for men. Among international students in America, Chinese undergraduates and medical students, and HIV-positive Americans, women showed more psychological improvement than men from Expressive Writing. In some cases, men did not show any improvements at all.
- Expressive Writing might require a certain mindset to be beneficial. For example, Expressive Writing was more helpful in decreasing distress for slightly neurotic gynecological cancer patients than highly neurotic patients. American breast cancer survivors increased in quality of life after Expressive Writing only if they were high in optimism and less avoidant of their trauma.
- In other cases, you may have more to gain from Expressive Writing if you are struggling more. For example, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patients who had trouble expressing emotions showed more improvements in well-being from Expressive Writing than patients who did not have trouble expressing emotions. Expressive Writing helped decrease depression for Chinese international students in America who often ruminated on negative thoughts, while those who ruminated less increased in depression. And diverse international students in America who were highly stressed from cultural differences showed larger emotional improvements from Expressive Writing than those who were less stressed.
- The benefits of Expressive Writing may be limited for Asian Americans, especially if you write about trauma or cancer, or if you compare yourself to others in your writing.
While Expressive Writing can be beneficial, it may also bring up difficult feelings:
- The practice increased anxiety and sadness for perinatal women who had survived Hurricane Harvey.
- Newly diagnosed breast cancer patients reported high levels of anxiety and depression when they wrote about negative emotions.
- International students in America (mostly from India, China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia) increased in positive emotions, but also increased in homesickness and fear, after Expressive Writing.
- For LGBTQ+ individuals, the benefits of Expressive Writing may depend on openness about your sexual orientation. In one case, white and Black lesbian Americans did Expressive Writing about sexuality-related trauma three times a week for two weeks. Lesbians who were less open about their sexuality decreased in confusion and stress, but lesbians who were more open about their sexual orientation actually increased in confusion and stress. This is possibly because lesbians who are more open do not regularly think about the prejudice they experience.
- British mothers who recently gave birth decreased in stress after Expressive Writing three times a week for two weeks, but many found it difficult to consistently engage in the practice.
James Pennebaker, Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas at Austin Office of Public Affairs
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