I have a history of writing my way through difficult periods in my life, with angst-ridden poetry in my teens, through a manuscript I completed during my husband’s cancer treatment in 2006, and blogging about grief after my mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death in 2010. I’d assumed the reason I turned to the journaling format as I mourned my husband in 2012 was because it came naturally as a writer. Weeks into my grief journey, however, I wondered how anyone could survive the experience without writing about it.
Through research, I discovered that expressive writing can be a powerful healing tool for anyone, not just writers. Dr. James Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, is often lauded as the pioneer in studying expressive writing as a route to healing. He discusses his findings in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressive Emotions, revealing how short-term, focused writing can have a beneficial effect for anyone dealing with stress or trauma.
In his original study in the late 1980s, college students wrote for twenty minutes on four consecutive days about the most traumatic or upsetting experiences of their lives, while control subjects wrote about superficial topics. Those in the experimental group showed marked improvement in immune-system functioning and had fewer visits to the health center in the months following the study.
Pennebaker’s original expressive writing paradigm has been replicated in hundreds of studies since then, each measuring different potential effects of expressive writing. Not only has subsequent research confirmed his original finding regarding physical well-being, writing about emotionally charged topics has also been shown to improve mental health, reducing symptoms of depression or anxiety. This has proven true in studies with those who have experienced loss, veterans experiencing PTSD, as well as cancer patients. Expressive writing is now an accepted holistic and nonmedicinal method for wellness.
For anyone new to expressive writing, I include these suggestions for beginning the practice in my newly-released journal Expressive Writing for Healing and through the workshops I conduct:
1. Choose a notebook or journal that fits your personality, that you can comfortably write in. A beautiful leather-bound journal might be too intimidating to begin with. Perhaps it will be a journal with a cover that has special meaning to you; a butterfly, dragonfly, or a Bible verse. Or maybe you’ll prefer to begin with a simple notebook with pages that can easily be torn out. Just the physical act of handwriting can be therapeutic, but if you are more comfortable writing on a computer, that works too.
2. There are no rules for journal writing. Cross out sentences, scribble on the sides of the paper, doodle or draw on the pages. Don’t worry about sentence structure or grammar. This writing is for you and not an audience. You can’t help yourself if you’re holding back, afraid to be honest about what you’re feeling. Feelings and emotions can be messy, so it’s perfectly fine if your journal is, too.
3. Write down your dreams, both literal and figurative. Do you have dreams and desires for your future? Write them down. In a couple of years, you may look back and see some of those dreams have become reality. Our subconscious also works hard at processing significant changes in our life. Have you had any particularly vivid nighttime dreams? Write those down, too. I’ve solved daytime dilemmas and come up with wonderful ideas in my dreams, so I like to keep a notebook by the bed to jot them down.
4. If you are reading inspirational books or articles, copy passages or quotes that speak to you. When I read something particularly inspiring or uplifting that resonates with me, I copy pertinent passages or quotes in my journal. I’ve often referred to those past journals and can still find inspiration and encouragement from the words I chose to transcribe. C.S. Lewis once wrote “We read to know we are not alone.”
5. Date your journal entries and try to end them on a positive note. Can you find even one thing to be grateful for each time you journal? By ending your journal entry on a positive note—with words of thanks or perhaps a prayer—you are training yourself to consciously choose joy and gratitude. Some people like to keep a separate gratitude journal, listing little blessings and good things that happen each day. This practice works because it forces you to intentionally focus your attention on grateful thinking, eliminating unwanted, ungrateful thoughts and guarding against taking things or people for granted. You want gratitude to become a habit, so practicing it in your journal helps that happen.
Mary graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. A certified grief counselor and founder of the annual Heal Your Grief retreat in Dubuque, Iowa, Mary conducts Expressive Writing for Healing workshops for churches, libraries, community colleges or grief support groups. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.