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Expressive writing is worth a try if you are stressed

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

There are many times where I don’t really know who to talk to when I have an issue. Sometimes it could be a practical issue and sometimes it is an emotional issue, but either way, it is stressful. Social support would absolutely be a good choice, but that isn’t always possible.

Instead, we can take destressing into our own hands. Expressive writing is one way to do so.

Expressive writing has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, but it was first introduced into psychological science in 1986 by a professor, Dr. James Pennebaker, who is currently still at the University of Texas, Austin.

He was first interested in expressive writing through wanting to help people with their physical health symptoms. Through a lucky question posed by one of his students, he became interested in the idea of how holding in secrets could negatively impact us.

One such secret (and this is a huge one) is if people were sexually assaulted before the age of 17. For a variety of reasons, people below this age don't tell anyone (although admittedly, there are many reasons why people above this age don’t tell anyone else; e.g., people don’t know how to respectfully take in information and properly support others).

From here, expressive writing really took off and continues strong even now. So what is it?

The first study asked participants to write for 4 days in a row, 15 minutes each day, about their deep and personal thoughts. And it worked (at least sort of). Right after the intervention, negative emotions were higher. But, 6 months after, participants who expressively wrote ended up going to the doctor’s office more often and having fewer physical symptoms.

Since then, researchers typically ask participants to write for 3 consecutive days, 20 minutes each. There are many variations though that also work. Expressive writing has also been shown to work with as little as 2 minutes of writing and as long as 30 minutes of writing. It has also shown to have improvements even if you just wait 10 minutes between writing sessions though some researchers ask participants wait for as long as a week.

Great right? So, when do you do this? Here are some times that it could be helpful:

1. A traumatic experience from the past that you can’t stop thinking about

2. Minor problems, like a fight with family or coworkers, failing an exam, anxiety about a new problem, or a complicated work problem

3. When you want to stop, stand back, evaluate how your life is going. This includes re-evalauting life goals, values, emotions, relationships, and who you are or just a life transition like graduating, falling in love, getting married, and starting new job. Anything that requires us to rethink who we are.

4. When you need to quiet and still your mind. To stop obsessing over topics or talking about them too much.

Honestly, it boils down to this: do it if you want to do it and don’t do it if you don’t want to do it. It really can be that simple.

It may not always help, but if you’re needing an outlet, this is a great one.

Let me walk through an example of how it could help.

It’s a beautiful day and the birds are chirping. The sun is out with a slight breeze to keep you cool – Saturdays are really great. You’re sipping on [insert your drink of choice] and you get a call from your boss. You think, that’s odd, but are certainly willing to answer; maybe it’s an emergency. You answer and the conversation seems fairly neutral, but you know something is up. Suddenly, she says, “[Name], we’ve run into some issues with our funding and need to cut you off the team.” At first you are taken aback and surprised. Then angered. Then sad. Your mind is going 100 miles per hour thinking about how this will affect you. Is there really no alternative? Why me? Will I be able to find another source of income? I don’t want to leave this project.

You spend the next week in a funk. You really don’t want to talk to anyone as you feel some shame about this cut. You haven’t quite been able to shake those feelings of unworthiness and anger at the situation. You realize it is no longer helpful to sit here and ruminate. But you think, what can I do about this? Then you remember that post about expressive

writing you saw on the internet. You try it out.

The first day, you try writing for 20 minutes. You really go in on how much you dislike the company now and anything to do with that project. You express a little gratitude that you had the opportunity in the first place, but that you are feeling empty nonetheless.

The next day, you try again for 20 minutes. There are still plenty of negative feelings come up about how you dislike your company and don’t even want to return, but now, the silver lining of the situation starts to emerge: you’re glad you can’t work for an unstable company. It doesn’t make you feel better, but it’s a start.

The last day, you try for 20 more minutes. You talk about how you really don’t want this position anymore, but still aren’t feeling well. You bring up topics of how you have learned about yourself in this process and that there will be a time where you look forward to challenging yourself again at another company.

In this example, we can start to see why expressive writing consistently can really help. It may not pan out like this, but through consistently writing, you can start to see where you get stuck emotionally, and potential avenues to fix it or redirect your attention. You might even just become more comfortable with the negative emotions and they won’t be as jarring, hurtful, or distracting anymore. You may even remember some of the positives about yourself instead of continually thinking about the negativity of the situation.

I’ve always found it helpful to write in moments of overwhelming stress, though I often forget that I should do it. Hopefully can be a reminder for anyone who has also forgotten about this powerful tool we can already do whenever we want!


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