Pen writing on paper

University of Austin psychology professor Dr. James Pennebaker believes that people can use writing to understand their emotions, improve their health, and even change their lives. He has written books such as Writing to Heal and Opening Up, where he explores the therapeutic effects of writing proven by years of research.

Is something weighing on your mind or keeping you up at night? Pennebaker proposes an exercise known as expressive writing.

For four days, take 15-20 minutes to write about something that has been bothering you. Don’t hold back anything. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling mistakes. Just let the thoughts flow. You can do whatever you want with the writing afterward – save it, re-read it, or even throw it away.

Pennebaker’s research has found that expressive writing has helped people cope with dramatic symptoms such as PTSD and depression. When people go through traumatic events, their minds work extremely hard to process the experience. These thoughts keep them up at night and distance them from friends and family. Writing helps people organize and understand these thoughts.

Several researchers replicated Pennebaker’s findings. For example, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined how writing exercises affected 107 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients. The participants were told to write about either stressful events or daily happenings for 20 minutes a day, three days a week, for four months.

Out of those who wrote about stressful events, 70 out of 71 showed signs of health improvement. The clinical analysis showed that they felt less stressed and showed fewer signs of deterioration. 

Furthermore, a study from the University of Auckland in New Zealand found similar results when conducting this experiment on 37 HIV/AIDS patients. Some participants wrote about stressful events, while others focused on boring everyday activities. 

The patients who wrote about stressful events showed improved health when compared to the control group. The expressive writers had improved levels of CD4 lymphocyte, which helps boost immunity. Sadly, these events diminished three months after the patients stopped writing.

The exercise is most effective if the individual can write from different points of view because it allows the writer to look at things from other perspectives. It is also essential for writers to craft a story out of a complicated event to make the experience more manageable.

Pennebaker warns that many people feel depressed after writing and that this feeling usually goes away after a few hours. He says that if you start to feel upset while writing, feel free to change the topic or stop writing altogether. Writers should avoid this exercise right after facing a traumatic event because it may be too much to handle. Pennebaker also believes that people shouldn’t do this exercise every day and that they shouldn’t write about a dramatic event for more than a few weeks. 

“I’m not convinced that having people write every day is a good idea,” he says. “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel-gazing or cycle of self-pity. But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Next time you’re feeling stressed, grab a pen and paper and start writing. You may find extraordinary results.