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Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.
Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.

Expressive Writing for Physical and Mental Health

Expressive writing is related to improved mood and physical health.

I have found that for some patients, speaking about their emotions is quite difficult, but writing about them is easier, and so I have introduced a form of writing into their treatment, expressive writing. Coincidentally, expressive writing has been found to be good for your physical and mental well-being,

Over the past two decades, numerous studies have demonstrated that writing expressively about stressful or traumatic life events is associated with improvements in physical and psychological health. is not the same as journal writing. This is writing about stressful or traumatic events in one's life and one's feelings associated with these events and people.

For example, expressive writing has been shown to be related to improved mood, reduced health center visits, improved immune system functioning, reduced high blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, reduced trauma-related intrusion and avoidance symptoms and reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologist James Pennebaker (1991) has written about this in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others, in which he describes the numerous scientific studies he has done on the benefits of expressive writing, either through speaking or writing.

Because he is a researcher and not a clinician, I have amended his instructions for expressive writing and include them here.To any reader who uses it, I would be very interested to hear about your experience with it.


Start with four consecutive days, for 20 minutes, or if not possible, four days within a week.

What should your writing topic be? It is not necessary to write about the most traumatic experience of your life. It is more important to focus on those issues that you are currently living with. If you find yourself thinking or dreaming about an event or experience too much of the time, writing about it can help resolve it in your mind. By the same token, if there has been something that you would like to tell others but can’t for fear of embarrassment or punishment, express it on paper. Whatever your topic, it is critical to explore both the objective experience (i.e. what actually happened) and your deepest feelings about it. Really let go and write about your deepest emotions. What do you feel about it and why do you feel that way.

Write continuously. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, sentence structure, or language. If you run out of things to say or reach a mental block, just repeat what you have already written. Don’t stop writing.

When and where should you write? After the initial start, write whenever you want or feel you need to. Also be attentive to too much writing. Don’t use writing as a substitute for action or as some other avoidance strategy. Moderation in all things includes transcribing your thoughts and feelings.

Where you write depends on your circumstances. Pennebaker’s studies have found that the more unique the setting, the better. Try to find a room where you will not be interrupted or bothered by unwanted sounds, sights, or smells.

What should you do with what you have written? Anonymity was important in Pennebaker’s experiments. . Be sure that your writing is completely anonymous and confidential. If you have any concern that someone else will find your writing, it may constrain what you say and how you say it, which will make the writing exercise less effective. I find that keeping the material enables you to trace the development of your thoughts and feelings on the subject over time. You can buy a lock box with key at Staples to keep it private. Planning to show your writing to someone can affect your mind-set while writing. For example, if you would secretly like your spouse to read your deepest thoughts and feelings, you will orient your writing to him/her rather than to yourself. From a health perspective, you will be better off making yourself the audience.

What if you hate to write—is there a substitute? Not really. The first time is the hardest. I have found with my patients who have difficulty in identifying or talking about their emotions, writing about them is enormously effective. In fact, I have incorporated writing into the treatment of some patients, handing them a pad and pen, and have published a paper on the subject, "Free Association Reconsidered: The Talking Cure, the Writing Cure" (Farber 2005).

If you have never written or talked about your thoughts and feelings, you may find writing particularly awkward at first. If so, just relax and practice. Write continuously for a set amount of time. No one is evaluating you. Sometimes you have to write a lot of junk before you can get to something meaningful.

What can you expect to feel during and after writing? Pennebaker found in many of his studies that people may feel sad or depressed immediately after writing. Seeing the raw truth on the page can be immediately distressing. These negative feelings usually disappear within an hour or so. In rare cases, they may last for a day or two. The great majority of Pennebaker’s subjects , however, reported feelings of relief, happiness and contentment soon after the writing studies were concluded.

Exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings is not a panacea. If you are coping with death, divorce, or other tragedy, you will not feel instantly better after writing. You should, however, have a better understanding of your thoughts and emotions, as well as the objective situation you are in. In other words, writing will give you a little distance and perspective on your life.

A warning. If you are depressed, do not start the writing exercise; it may make it worse.I f you find yourself feeling depressed after a day or two of writing, this is a sign that this writing exercise is not for you, at least not at this time in your life. Stop writing and for your own sense of well-being, have a consultation with a psychotherapist.

About the Author
Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.

Sharon K. Farber, Ph.D., is a board certified clinical social worker, maintaining a private practice in psychotherapy in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

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