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‘Expressive writing’ by Pennebaker and Evans – The Essentials of Writing for Health

Expressive Writing, Words that heal (Pennebaker and Evans, 2014) [See the book for studies’s references]

PART 1 looks at the basics of Expressive writing including some scientific studies.

1. Why write about a trauma?

Emotional writing can positively affect people’s sleeping habits, work efficiency, and their connections to others.

The ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences study established that trauma in childhood was a strong predictor of serious illness in adulthood, and people who had a trauma and kept the traumatic  experience secret were much worse off.

[Gay and lesbians who open disclosed their sexual status were found to have fewer major health problems than if they kept their orientation secret.]

–> If not talking is unhealthy, would asking people to talk, or write, about emotional upheavals produce health improvements?

Pennebaker’s Study:

Students were asked to write about emotional, traumatic topics or about superficial, non-emotional topics.

In your writing, I want you to really let go and explore your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your life. In your writing, try to tie this traumatic experience to other parts of your life – your childhood, your relationships with your parents, close friends, lovers, or other important to you. You may link your writing to your future and who you would like to become, to who you have been in the past, or to who you are now. The important thing is that you really let go and write about your deepest emotions and thoughts. […] Many people have not had traumatic experiences, but all of us have faced major conflicts or stressors – and you can write about those as well.

Writing about personal traumas resulted in people seeing doctors at half their normal rate.

Warning: this results don’t help us answering the question: ‘Would writing help me deal with my life?’

The effects of writing:

Since the first expressive writing studies were published in the 1980s, at least 300 studies about the benefits of expressive writing have been published.

Biological effects: The body’s immune system can function more or less effectively depending on the level of stress. Expressive writing increases emotion regulation (warning: we don’t know what these effects mean in the long term health) and reduces the stress (lower blood pressure and heart rates).

Psychological effects: immediately after writing feeling sad is normal, long-term effects are more positive (feeling happier and less negative. Depressive symptoms and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.

Behavioral changes: Working memory is a term that indicates our ability to think about complex tasks. If we are worrying about things we have less working memory. Expressive writing frees working memory allowing us to deal with more complex issues, improving performances at school and work. It helps dealing with our social life as well, making us more socially comfortable, it helps couple reduce anger, depression, PTSD symptoms.

People tend to benefit most from expressive writing if they:

– openly acknowledge emotions,

– work to construct a coherent story creating a narrative,

– switch perspectives (even writing in third person has proven beneficial).

Dangers of writing:

– Losing control, but it can be avoided through the Flip-Out Rule:

If you feel that writing about a particular topic is too much for you to handle, then do not write about it. If you know that you aren’t ready to address a particularly painful topic, the write about something else. When you are ready, the tackle the other topic. If you feel that you will flip out by writing, don’t write.

– Overanalyzing: writing about the same topic in the some way every day is not at all helpful, and may possible be harmful. In this case, try some other approaches.

– Humiliation and blackmail: be sure to write in a safe place, and that you writing is private and for you alone.

– Potential life changes:by reducing you inner conflicts, you may affect the course of your life and the lives of others in unintended ways.

2. How can we get ready to write?

What to write:

– write about what keeps you awake at night, the emotional upheaval bothering you the most (but if you find yourself moving to another topic, go with it),

– write about issues relevant to the here and now, about traumas that are present in your mind.

How much time: every day, or once a week, for at least 10 minutes, for a minimum of 4 days.

Think of expressive writing as a tool always be at your disposal.

When to write:

– If the trauma occurred within 2-3 weeks, it may be to recent. In this case begin your writing in a safe way, perhaps describing what is happening in your life right now. As you feel comfortable you can begin to deal with the trauma itself and it effects more deeply.

– Writing about an ongoing emotional upheaval is a good way to manage feelings and achieve relief (ex. chronic disease, divorce, abuse).

– Future trauma: eventual death of a loved one, upcoming divorce.

Remember that the point of this writing is how we make sense of a troubling experience or event and how we incorporate that experience into the entire story of our lives. 

3. The basic Writing Techniques

 Instructions:

– write a minimum of twenty minutes per day for four consecutive days;

– write about a trauma or emotional upheaval that has profoundly affected your life;

– you can write about the same event on all four days or about different events each day;

– once your begin writing, write without stopping. If you run out of things to say just repeat what you already written;

– write only for yourself;

– remember the Flip out rule: If you feel that writing about a particular topic is too much for you to handle, then do not write about it. If you know that you aren’t ready to address a particularly painful topic, the write about something else. When you are ready, the tackle the other topic. If you feel that you will flip out by writing, don’t write.

Day 1: write about the event itself. As you write about this upheaval, you might begin to tie it to other parts of your life. For many people the first day of writing is the most difficult.

Day 2: examine your deepest emotions and thoughts. Try to link the trauma to other parts of your life and begin thinking how this upheaval is affecting your life in general. You might also write about how you may be responsible for some of the effects of the trauma.

Day 3: focus on your emotions and thoughts about those events that are affecting your life the most right now. As you write about this emotional upheaval, what are your feelings and thinking? How has this event shaped your life and who you are?

Day four: stand back and think about the events, issues, thoughts and feelings that you have disclosed. Try to tie up anything that you haven’t confronted. What things have you learned, lost and gained as a result of this upheaval in your life? How will these past events guide your thoughts and actions in the future?

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