A few years ago, a study came out claiming that reading books could make you live longer. Other studies confirmed the benefits of a good book: reading could reduce cognitive decline, encourage empathy, decrease stress, stave off dementia, boost happiness, and reduce some of the symptoms of depression.

For decades mountains of research have shown the benefits of writing too: It helps you work through your thoughts and emotions, regulates your feelings, and teaches you to express what you’re going through.

The Mental Benefits to Writing

In a classic experiment, James Pennebaker, PhD., University of Texas, assigned healthy undergraduates to one of four groups. All were asked to write for 15 minutes for four consecutive nights. Three of the groups were asked to write about some traumatic event in their lives; the fourth group wrote about some other trivial topic. All four groups were then tracked for the next six months and researchers found that the three groups who wrote about traumatic events had fewer visits to the health center.

Since that seminal work by Pennebaker and his colleagues, many more studies replicated similar findings showing a connection between expressing emotions and enjoying good health. Pennebaker has also written several books, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering From Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, and Opening up By Writing Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain.

His work is often the basis for writing therapy workshops and interventions. They typically start with the same fundamentals of his early experiments and go something like this:

For the next 3 days, I would like for you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie this trauma to your childhood, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives. You may also link this event to your past, your present or your future, or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or about different topics each day. Not everyone has had a single trauma but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors—and you can write about these as well. All of your writing will be completely confidential” (Pennebaker & Chung, 2011, p. 419).

In the past couple of years we’ve heard a lot about gratitude journaling, but this more focused, expressive writing might be the next wave of writing therapy. Whether you use journal prompts created by a therapist or written in a book designed to help people work through emotions (like Pennebaker’s) or simply put pen to paper and write freeform based on the instructions from Pennebaker’s original research, writing can provide a healthy outlet to work through ups and downs.

The one caveat: If you’re suffering from moderate to severe depression or PTSD writing can open raw emotions without proper closure. And therapeutic writing isn’t recommended immediately following a traumatic event since you might not yet be prepared to face the flood of emotions writing can stir.

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The Physical Benefits to Writing

In addition to the mental benefits, writing can even improve physical wellbeing. Research by Dr. Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth PhD., Syracuse University, suggests that writing about emotions and stress can boost immune functioning in patients with HIV/AIDS, asthma, and arthritis. There has even been research showing the biopsy wounds heal more quickly in patients who journal.

While scientists can’t say exactly how therapeutic writing benefits work, the consensus is that the writing shouldn’t just be a replaying of the events but should make attempts to understand and contextualize them. Susan Lutgendorg, PhD., of the University of Iowa did an extensive journaling study where she found that the writer needs to “find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap the benefits.”

Pennebaker agrees with the assessment saying people who write words that indicate growth or change from the experience like “because,” “realize”, “understand” tend to have better outcomes.

How to Start Therapeutic Writing

Try these five steps to get started:

  1. Carve out time. You don’t have to do it every day, but aim for 15 minutes three to four days a week.
  2. Experiment with your method: There’s nothing magic about writing by hand, you could try typing or doing voice memos. The point is to be thoughtful about the experience.
  3. Find the right place:Where you write can affect how you feel about it and whether or not it “works.” The most important thing is having a quiet place.
  4. Don’t edit yourself: Part of the exercise is to access your feelings and you can’t do that if you’re constantly redirecting yourself.
  5. Reread…just not right away: It’s a good idea to go back and see what you’ve written, but don’t get carried away with it. If you read your previous entries before you start, it might influence what you end up writing.
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Last Updated: Jan 7, 2020