I started to explore the benefits of expressive writing in 2013, when I did my master’s at the University of Hertfordshire. But long before that, I suppose I had already been an ‘expressive writer’; I truly believe that there is a writer in all of us.
Writing is both a personal and universal act, where we express our thoughts on paper. Essentially, this is what makes every one of us a writer, even though we may lack the knack for spinning admirable prose. As a frustrated writer, the closest I could get to my dream of publishing that irresistibly riveting novel is through keeping a journal. This simple act of curating the daily goings-on in my life brings me a range of mental health benefits. Perhaps, you could also benefit from the healing powers of pen.
Origin of expressive writing
Expressive writing, sometimes called written emotional disclosure, is a fancy term for such a simple act: expressing oneself through writing. It may sound complicated, but most of us have done it at some point in our lives, through keeping a journal or a diary. But of course, with modern age, it is now being done with a keyboard, or even through apps. Also, keeping a personal blog can be considered as a form of expressive writing.
This form of therapy was introduced by Pennebaker and Beall in the late 1980s. Their pioneering work involved asking participants to write about a ‘past trauma’, as a way of conveying their deepest feelings and thoughts. In contrast, control groups were told to write about neutral topics like writing about their plans for the day, which of course would prevent them from revealing their emotions. Both groups were requested to do this for 15 minutes each day, for four consecutive days.
Since its introduction, expressive writing has been increasingly used in a variety of way to improve our wellness, ranging from raising the self-concept of adolescents, to helping people with traumatic injury as well as improving the regulation of emotion-related experiences, physiological responses and behaviours.
How to start with expressive writing
You may find it a bit uncomfortable to do expressive writing, especially if you’ve never done it before. Don’t worry, just like any other skills, expressive writing requires a bit of practice and then soon it will come more naturally. And once you’ve finished an expressive writing piece, give yourself some time to ponder on what you have written. This is also the time to be compassionate with yourself.
The rewards of expressive writing
As the earlier studies have identified, expressive writing can help calm psychological trauma and enhance our mood. Now, more recent studies suggest that this kind of writing also benefits physical health. One study outlined the benefits of expressive writing, which range from long-term benefits in health such as fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, an improved immune system among HIV patients, and greater psychological well-being.
There is also evidence which suggests that expressive writing can induce positive medical benefits such as lung functioning in asthma, disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis and pain intensity in women with chronic pelvic pain. Although, in my own study I have found out that it may pose no significant effect on body satisfaction and positive affect. Hence, future studies may consider other boundary conditions along with other variables for moderating effects. Still, the prevailing findings on this therapy is that it positively impacts our mental health and well-being.
Putting our feelings into words really does make a difference. So don’t bottle it up, grab a pen and express yourself. Try it for at least four consecutive days and see how it improves your well-being.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.
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