Whether you use pen and paper, keyboard and computer, or thumbs and a touchscreen, most of us spend our days writing. If you add up the minutes that you spend composing emails, text messages, Google searches, social media posts, calendar entries, and grocery lists, you might be surprised by how much you rely on the written word in your daily life. As a tool, writing has become so ever-present that we often don’t pay attention to the process of writing itself.
But perhaps we should!
More and more research shows that expressive writing can be a helpful way to process emotions, and cope with stressors we come upon every day.
What is expressive writing?
Expressive writing—writing for the purpose of putting your own thoughts and feelings into words—can be a powerful way to enhance overall wellbeing. As its name suggests, expressive writing focuses on expressing and describing your emotional experiences. This method doesn’t worry itself with the rules of writing, grammar, and spelling (so you can set those formulas aside for the five-paragraph essay!).
Instead, expressive writers have the freedom to choose whatever style or structure feels most authentic to them. This can mean writing in a journal, or composing a whole story without using a single punctuation mark, or even telling your story from your dog’s perspective! Your possibilities are endless. By letting go of the inflexible limits of writing that we are usually restricted to, you may find that you are able to tap into a more authentic inner voice and a deeper connection with yourself and your emotions.
OK – but, why should I do it?
Over the past 30 years, a large number of studies have demonstrated links between engaging in expressive writing and improved physical, mental, and emotional health. Improved immune functioning[i], better sleep[ii], more effective coping[iii], and enhanced recovery processes after traumatic experiences[iv] are just a few of the physical and therapeutic benefits that researchers have credited to expressive writing interventions.
On a personal note, it’s been my experience that incorporating expressive writing into therapy sessions and preventive wellness practices can lead to greater self-awareness, more resilience to symptoms of stress/anxiety/depression, improved self-esteem, and deeper connections with others.
Now, how do I do it?
One of the unique benefits of this method is its approachability. You don’t need a college degree or a trained professional in order to take part in the expressive writing process. While there are many opportunities to participate in structured writing workshops or expressive writing classes led by a therapist or other licensed professional (and this approach is recommended if you plan to use writing to process intensely painful experiences), expressive writing is something you can do on your own.
Here are 5 expressive writing activities that you can experiment with. Some of these suggestions may be more useful to you than others; however, that is the beautiful part about expressive writing. As you learn more about your own expressive style, you can personalize your practice to get the most out of your writing experience!
Using a journal or diary to express your emotions, thoughts, and opinions can be a helpful healing process. Putting words to our emotions often helps us understand them in a new way, and process them more effectively. Sitting down to write can help us put our thoughts and feelings down on paper so that we are able to look at them rather than from Plus, you may find it easier to put your feelings into words when you know that you don’t have to share them with others if you don’t want to.
Schedule writing into your routine
Some people have found that incorporating expressive writing, even a few minutes of it, into their daily routine helps their mindset as they move through their day. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, encourages her readers to write down their stream-of-consciousness, uncensored thoughts every morning: “Morning pages […] get us to the other side: the other side of our fear, of our negativity, of our moods. Above all, they get us beyond our Censor. Beyond the reach of the Censor’s babble we find our own quiet center.”
Find inspiration in music
Put on a random playlist and transcribe the images, memories and emotions that the music evokes for you. This can be a helpful way to jumpstart the writing process, or to give yourself a mental break from distracting thoughts or preoccupations.
Practice letter writing
Unspoken thoughts or feelings can feel like a heavy burden to carry. Consider putting these sentiments into a letter. This letter could be written to a specific person, to yourself, or to a broader group of people. Whether you choose to send it or not, writing your feelings into a letter might help you find new ways to let go of some of your suffering.
Writing about people or experiences that we feel grateful for can help us maintain focus on the aspects of life that are hopeful and meaningful. And having a written account of your own reasons to feel grateful can provide some much-needed perspective on days that bring challenges, frustrations, or sadness.
Now grab your favorite pen, a wide open book, and allow your thoughts to flow freely. If you find a different writing activity that works best for you, share with us and the community below!
[iii] Pennebaker, J. W., Colder, M., Sharp, L. K. (1990). Accelerating the coping process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 528–537.
[iv] Pennebaker, J. W., Beall, S. K. (1986) Confronting a traumatic event. Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 274–281.
Chloe Chatenever, MA, Wellness Educator, has been a member of the Jefferson Center Wellness team since 2016. During her time with the center, she has especially enjoyed leading expressive writing classes and collaborating with clients to explore the therapeutic benefits of the written word.