What do you think of when you think of writing? If you’re like me, by default, I think of essay writing. And before, as a high school student, I was quite terrified of essay writing. It all started in eighth grade when my English teacher highlighted all my grammar mistakes and told me I needed to do better (without really telling me how).
After that incident, I only wrote when I absolutely needed to. It wasn’t until I started journaling that I realized writing could be fun and enjoyable. Realizing that journaling was therapeutic and has health benefits, I researched the different ways of writing for mental health and stumbled upon the technique of expressive writing.
Expressive writing is a simple technique in which people write about an upsetting or stressful experience for 15 to 20 minutes a day for three to four times a week. Unlike other forms of writing or journaling, expressive writing is deeply personal and is focused on disclosing thoughts and feelings rather than grammar, style or spelling.
What are some forms of expressive writing?
There are several approaches to expressive writing. Here are some that I’ve personally tried:
Standard expressive writing: Writing about your deepest thoughts or feelings from a stressful or emotional event. You can write about the same or different topics over the week.
Example: My grandmother was recently hospitalized. The doctor said her kidneys were failing and she might not have longer than two weeks to live. It was a particularly stressful and emotional time for me. It was hard to find words to grieve, but simply writing down all my emotions helped me feel lighter
Cognitive processing: Writing to derive understanding and insights regarding an event. Why did the event provoke those feelings? What did you learn from the event?
Example: This form of expressive writing is particularly helpful for me to understand events that I feel anger or sad by. When the pandemic started, I wrote about my frustrations and realized I was particularly anxious when it comes to dealing with uncertainties i.e. not knowing when I would be able to travel and visit my family again.
Exposure: Promoting emotional habituation or adaptation through writing about your thoughts and emotions. What made the event stressful? What feelings did it provoke?
Example: I rarely get angry so writing about events that anger or irk me helps me identify what exactly triggers the emotion. What are some emotions you would like to work on? Try focusing on the emotion and write about an event that brings about that feeling.
Benefit finding: Focusing on the positive aspects of an event that occurred e.g. how you’ve grown or changed as a person and how you may deal with similar situations in the future.
Example: Similar to cognitive processing, I tend to use benefit finding for seemingly negative events, whether that’s an ending of a relationship or a work project that didn’t go so well. Although you might have felt pain or hurt, what are some lessons you’ve learned? How have you grown and evolved as a person?
Best possible future self: Writing about your vision of your future self and life. What is your ideal life? What does success look like to you?
Example: A fun exercise for you to visualize your ideal life! Writing about your possible future self helps you ground down to your values and what really matters. It keeps me motivated and aligned with my everyday doing.
So, how does expressive writing actually help?
Expressive writing improves your emotional state. As you become more self-aware and are better able to understand your stresses, you are able to more easily identify the sources of stress and how you can deal with them.
By writing it down, you also open yourself up and disclose the stressors in your mind that you may not share with others. This practice also boosts your learning, creativity, and problem solving. Instead of judging my emotions, I often practice reframing and re-evaluating past incidents that provoked certain feelings.
To give you an example, I was working on a project for work and was feeling drained by it. I started writing about what I worked on, my feelings after working on it, and why I think I felt the way I feel. I realized I was feeling unsupported by my project partner and felt like I wasn’t able to speak up about it. However, after processing the situation, I was more at ease and ended up talking to my project partner. We had a great conversation and were able to open up to each other. This drastically improved our working relationship.
What does the research say?
Several studies have shown that participants who wrote about a stressful or traumatic experience rather than a neutral topic have improved their physical health as their stress and anxiety levels reduced. A study by John Weinman at King’s College London showed that participants’ wounds “healed much faster among people asked to write about emotional topics.” Crazy, huh? Researchers theorized that by disclosing secrets or stressful information on paper, you reduce inhibition which in turn improves your immune function.
I’m convinced! I want to try expressive writing now. How should I start?
Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes, then spend that time writing down your deepest emotions and thoughts about a challenge or upsetting experience that is affecting your life. When you write, ignore spelling, grammar, or structure. Write whatever comes to mind. If you feel stuck, write about the most recent event that was stressful for you. Repeat this practice for at least four days.
Build this into part of your daily ritual. If you're a morning person, write as part of your morning ritual. Stack it with your current habits whether that's writing after your morning run or meditation. If you're a night person, write before you go to bed. It may help you wind down and release any anxious or overwhelming thoughts
Set up a relaxing environment to write. Sit in a quiet and cozy spot. Get as comfortable as you can! You can write in your journal or use a pen and paper. Remove any distractions - turn off your TV, flip over your phone, or put it on silent.
You may feel upset right after you finish writing. It’s completely normal. After writing about a stressful or traumatic experience, you may feel many emotions resurfacing. Stop writing if you are feeling very overwhelmed by your emotions. You know yourself best, so do what you are comfortable with. This practice is for you.
While writing can sound daunting, it is one of the best ways for you to reflect and process your thoughts and feelings. Through expressive writing, I was able to dig up various limiting beliefs and stories I told myself. I hope that by writing, you will be able to shine a light on your whole self with love and kindness.
**While research shows that expressive writing is beneficial for physical and mental health, the practice is not therapy or a substitute for therapy. We highly recommend you seek professional help if you are feeling the symptoms of any mental illnesses.**