Expressive writing is one of the most well-researched writing therapies in the world. If you have experienced trauma, or if you feel overwhelmed, try expressive writing. You will go to the doctor less, sleep better, and improve your cognitive functioning.
The Expressive Writing Technique
Chapter 1 – Shhh, It’s a Secret
Major secrets can be stressful. Keeping secrets from those close to us can affect our health, including immune function, the action of our heart and vascular system, and even the biochemical workings of our brain and nervous system.”
Sharing our secrets can reverse these negative health issues keeping them in causes.
There is a biological change when we let go of secrets.
Pennebaker’s first study; asked a college freshmen class to get into groups and talk for 15 minutes
He found that;
groups that talked the most, people liked the most
And the more you talked, the more you felt you learned from the others
Conclusion: we’d rather talk than listen.
Polygraph confession effect
Once people confess, even if the confession guarantees their life is ruined; all their stress indicators go way down. (HR, BP, hand sweat.)
One of the basic tenets of this book is; the mind and the body are linked, and effect each other.
Harold Wolff and Stewart Wolf
Created Stress Interview
-people are asked a series of psychologically threatening questions while, at the same time, relevant bodily changes were monitored.
“One reason we often obsess about a disturbing event is that we are trying to understand it.”
Disclosure reduces the effects of secrets.
Chapter 2 – The Invention of the Expressive Writing Approach
Pennebaker made a 12 page questionnaire, and asked 800 women questions.
10% reported having a traumatic sexual experience before the age of 17
Those people got sick more often.
Psychology Today magazine asked 24,000 readers health questions
22% of women and 10% of men reported having a traumatic sexual experience before 17
“Having nearly any kind of traumatic experience is bad for your health. However, if you keep the trauma a secret, it increases the odds that you will have health problems.”
So we know that sharing secrets is good for us, but how to test this?
Pennebaker came up with writing in a journal after writing himself when his new marriage became very difficult.
Pennebaker’s first experiment was groundbreaking
those who wrote about the traumatic experience visited the doctor half as often then those who didn’t over the next year.
Follow up Ohio State study
Same procedure, plus taking of blood to look for immune function
People still went to the doctor less
And their immune function improved for the next 6 weeks
Chapter 3 – Whats On Your Mind
Talk therapy can help
But catharsis is not helpful if it is just concerned with emotions and not insight
Stress Interview seems like a good tool (is a more scientific version of Scientology’s emeter.)
Typically, the more traumatic the experience, the more rapidly people speak when talking about it.
“really, honestly, and truly,” tend to mean the writer is holding back.
The Letting-Go Experience
When people share their secrets
Some argue it is a hypnotic state (flow?)
GSR (Galvanic skin response) may be a biological marker for inhibiting
People asked to share their most traumatic events into a voice recorder
High disclosures and low disclosures
Affective Labeling – putting our negative emotions into words seems to blunt their effect
The act of confession, or, the ceasing of inhibition has measurable beneficial affects on our health.
Chapter 4 – Dealing With Chronic Health Issues With Expressive Writing
Introduced Asthma and arthritis study (P. 43)
Stress inhibits a range of bodily functions
Extended stress will wear the body down and eventually an illness will emerge.
We normally get sick after the stressful event is over, because that is when our body’s immune system picks back up
Wounds heal faster when the patient engages in expressive writing
EW is not a panacea, it can boost immune function but it should not replace conventional medicine.
There is compelling evidence that inflammation is a critical part of depression
Cognitive Therapy and Diet together.
PTSD and Expressive Writing
*Expressive writing seems to be most useful when we have things inside that we don’t share with others.*
Chapter 5 – Writing To Clear Your Mind
Expressive Writing organizes trauma. We can leverage this mechanism to learning. When you are learning a new subject, writing about it expressively helps organize it.
When learning something, ask yourself what your deepest thoughts and feelings are about the material.”
Don’t censor yourself.
College study (P. 67)
Kittyl Klein and Adriel Boas
Expressive Writing and Working Memory
1 group asked to write for 10 minutes about positive event
2nd asked to write about challenging negative experience
Only 2nd group showed the improvements.
*there is debate in the EW community; there are several studies that find the increase with both neg and pos events
Being confronted by the information (passive) – details and quotes
Confronting the information (active) – summaries and commentary
Gillis Einstein studies note taking
Those who have confronting note-taking styles tend to score better on exams.
Expressive Writing and Flow
We can get into flow easier if we clear our minds using EW before we engage in the activity.
Writing to Problem Solve Technique – (P. 73)
Letter Writing would be an interesting idea to explore.
Seems people would incur the same benefits as expressive writers do (if they wrote expressively)
The Downside of writing
Ask these questions
“Am I using Writing to avoid action?”
“Is my writing more of an intellectual rather then self-reflective exercise?”
Being smart isn’t the key here, being emotionally honest and self-reflective is.
“Am I using writing as a place to uncensored complain?”
“Am I self-absorbed or self-reflecting?”
Summary: Writing is not a cure, but a great, cheap, prevention plan.
Chapter 6 – Get These Thoughts Out Of My Head
A key symptom of anxiety and depression is rumination.
The White Bear Dilemma
Akin to ignore the snakes. They’ll still bite you.
Answer: Surf the urge. Think the thought. Snake Harvest if needed.
Psychometric: Working Memory Tests
Expressive writing and working memory study
Increased working memory
Increased grades that year
Doing EW before major tests have shown to help.
Seek self-compassion in Expressive Writing
Expressive Writing and Self-Disclosure help us sleep
Chapter 7 – To Speed Up or Slow Down
What is the difference between people who cope quickly to trauma and those who don’t?
Mardi Horowitz Model of Coping
It is a common misconception, but most people who go through trauma do not get PTSD
How well we cope may come down to what kind of attachment we had with our parents
Secure people cope better
Attachment style Psychometrics (P. 107)
Love and grief have similar inverse evolutions.
Intense phase 1-2 months
Plateau phase 4-12 months
Assimilation phase 16+ months
Chapter 8 – I’m Here For You, Or Am I?
Sometimes we can’t share the secret with our social group
We let the secret out little bits at a time and monitor the reactions of our peers, if they respond negatively, we damage control and keep the secret a secret.
Sometimes trauma shared disturbs the listener, it happens.
Most studies find that the more close friends you have, the healthier you are
The kick, this depends on whether you have shared your trauma with them
If you haven’t. all health benefits seem to go away
Things to keep in mind if you choose to share trauma with a confidant
It will likely change the nature the relationship
Hearing your trauma can be trauma for the listener
Social Blackmail exists.
The listeners expectations can affect the disclosure
Telling and holding secrets can be a maladaptive substitute for action.
Chapter 9 – How Does Writing Help Us Secure a Happier and Healthier Future?
The Ziegarnik Effect
We remember more vividly and think more about uncompleted tasks
We can resolve tasks by writing them out
We can guide our life by setting intelligent, compelling life tasks
Several researchers have found that those who can turn to a religious system, any kind, cope better to life’s certain traumas then those who don’t.
Make your own
Some trauma is so disturbing that attempting to find meaning is not helpful.
Offer RAWism and Pragmatism.
Best Possible Future Self (P. 143)
University of Missouri
Same healing effect as trauma work, even more so
Aids in goal-achievement.
Converting an image, (most trauma), into language, makes it easier to forget.
When we write about something, we naturally begin to condense it into the structure of a story, and it becomes summarized. It becomes less charged.
Those who use EW with explicit intent on creating a story score better then those who make bullet lists
Reasons Expressive writing helps
translates experience into language
Helps us find meaning
Improves working Memory
Improves social relations
Chapter 10 – Pulling It All Together
Writing about past trauma
Writing about current minor life upheavals
Writing about major life changes (just graduated, start of new job, etc)
Writing stream-of-consciousness just to clear your mind
What doesn’t work
Writing about trauma that is ongoing, or only days or weeks old (we need a month or two distance)
Be your own judge, if you feel compelled to write the day after, do so.
Writing about an unknown near future
Do we have to write about trauma?
Best Possible Self
Imagined Trauma! (P. 162)
How long to write?
15 minutes for 4 days was practical not due to knowledge.
Many different types work.
Stick with 15-20 for 4 days.
Place where you will be undisturbed
Evening is best time
Stream of Consciousness
Write uncensored. No one will read this.
Really explore your emotional perspective, and an objective perspective.
You can expect to feel a little sad after for up to a couple of hours. This is normal.
Prompt on page 167