From a very early age, I’ve used writing as a form to cope with life, without consciously understanding how much it helped me heal from the many turbulent thoughts I’d get. It was not until I was 38 years old that I started to consciously use expressive writing to heal, without knowing that there already had been a lot of research done to the health benefits of writing.
Five years prior, psychiatrists had diagnosed me with a mental illness and convinced me I needed to take psychotropic drugs to stay healthy. Within the first year, I gained around 125 pounds. After keeping the reason for the weight gain a secret for around five years, I started to get suicidal thoughts and kept thinking, my life is not worth living anymore. Even though I was a very successful businesswoman in New York City, I felt like this loser, mostly because I couldn’t shake off all the weight I had gained since I received the diagnosis.
Around the same time, Ben Vereen of all people moved into the apartment across the hall from me. A man who is known for his high energy, versatility, and creativity on stage. We became very close friends. At some point I was able to talk to him about when and why I had gained the weight. Ben told me how his life had also been very turbulent at times, only he was never diagnosed with a mental illness. For him, being able to perform on stage helped him deal with these strong emotions he often gets. Ben is a big believer in healing through the arts, and since he knew about the many art projects I had worked on in Berlin before moving to New York City, he encouraged me to deal with these painful thoughts somehow through the arts. That was the day the first seed was planted, that there might be a different path for me as well.
Soon I decided to write down the big complex story that led me to derail into a psychosis in 1996. While bringing my most embarrassing stories on to paper, magically my suicidal thoughts disappeared.
Invention of the Expressive Writing Method
Recently I came across the book ‘Opening Up by Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain’ written by James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth. In this book, the authors write about the science behind how expressive writing has been used to treat a variety of physical health problems as well as mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress. This video summarizes the Expressive Writing Method first tested in 1986 by James Pennebaker and Sandra Beall:
Meanwhile, over 200 research studies report that writing about emotional upheavals in our lives can improve physical and emotional health. It can even help people’s relationships and love lives.
How You Can Apply These Studies Into Your Life Today
If you, a friend, or a client is plagued with unwanted thoughts, memories, or worries this is what I suggest:
- Find a time and a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Once you begin writing, write continuously for 20-30 minutes focusing on your deepest emotions and thoughts about a stressful or upsetting experience in your life. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or style.
- You can write longhand or you can type on a computer. If you are unable to write, you can also record the text with your phone or computer.
- Do a writing session on four days back to back.
- WARNING: Some people report feeling sad after writing. This typically goes away in a couple of hours. However, if you notice that you are getting extremely upset about your topic, I recommend to stop writing or change topics.
The letting-go experience can feel similar to a trance state. Many people even reported losing their sense of time and place while disclosing their intimate secrets.
Make sure that your writings are for your eyes only. This will allow you to be completely honest with yourself. You can even plan on throwing them away when you are finished. You can burn them, flush them or tear them into little pieces and toss them into the ocean. Whether you keep it or save them is totally up to you.
Please keep in mind that there are probably a thousand ways to write that might be beneficial to you. I encourage you to be your own scientist, experiment on your own and see what works best for you.
I’d love to hear from you how things go. The best way to reach me is here.
On my personal website, I created a list of books on the general craft of writing. You might find books that are helpful on this list.
If you’re someone like me, who likes to do a lot of research, below is a list of outstanding books Professor James Pennebacker recommends. Each author approaches journaling and writing in very different ways. James recommends exploring these books and choose what works best for you.
Adams, Kathleen (1998). The Way of the Journal : A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing (public library)
Baldwin, Christina (1992). One to One : Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing (public library)
DeSalvo, Louise A. (2000). Writing As a Way of Healing : How Telling Our Stories Transforms (public library)
Fox, John (1997). Poetic Medicine : The Healing Art of Poem-Making (public library)
Goldberg, Natalie (2016). Writing Down the Bones : Freeing the Writer Within (public library)
Jacobs, Beth (2005). Writing for Emotional Balance (public library)
Pennebaker, James W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion (public library)
Pennebaker, J.W. & Smyth, J.M. (2016). Opening Up by Writing it Down (public library)
Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words that Heal (public library)
Pennebaker, J.W. (2013). Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval (public library)
Rainer, Tristine (1979). The New Diary : How to Use a Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity (public library)