In such a demanding and precarious society that we live in, it is not surprising to find that many of us are seeking for ways to enhance our mental health and well-being. For instance, in the UK alone, more than 1.25 million people have used the NHS mental health services in 2010, representing access rates of around 2,700 per 100,000 of the population (Sutherland, 2010). Although exercise and meditation have both been scientifically proven ways to achieve a better sense of well-being, it might be that writing therapy is simply another option that we could try.
Better memory (Klein & Boals, 2001), a more restful sleep (Arigo & Smyth, 2012) and a more positive outlook in life (Lyubomirsky, Sousa, & Dickerhood, 2006) – the benefits of expressive writing can go far beyond these because we can gain more from writing than we actually realise.
I have this firm notion that there is a writer in all of us. Writing is a personal and universal act where we convey our thoughts into a paper (or a blogpost like this one). This is what makes virtually every one of us a writer, even though we may lack the knack for spinning an admirable prose.
As a frustrated writer, the closest I could get to my dream of publishing that irresistibly riveting novel is through keeping a journal. This simple act of curating the daily goings-on in my life brings me a host of mental health benefits. Perhaps, you could also benefit from the healing powers of expressive writing.
What is expressive writing?
Expressive writing, or written emotional disclosure as it is known in the scientific arena, is the act of expressing ourselves through writing. This writing is personal, allowing the writer to explore and express personal feelings. The piece may attempt to answer a question, state an opinion or recount one’s personal experiences. On most occasions, expressive writing does all of these; and unlike most forms of writing, this type of written communication isn’t focused on proper spelling, punctuation and grammar. Pioneered in the late 1980’s by James Pennebaker, expressive writing is now widely considered as a therapy (Wingate, 2015).
In spite of the volume of studies investigating expressive writing, no one has examined the exact reason why expressive writing improves our well-being. There are, however, two current theories that posit explanation. First, it is possible that expressive writing enables us to make sense of what is happening in our lives, giving us the opportunity to step back and reflect on life events (Pennebaker, 1997). Second, expressive writing provides us an effective outlet to vent out our emotion, which leads us to feeling better about ourselves (Pennebaker, 1985; Booth, Petrie, & Pennebaker, 1997).
The healing powers of pen
As the earlier studies have revealed, expressive writing can help assuage psychological trauma and enhance our mood. Now, more recent studies suggest that this kind of writing also benefits physical health. One study (Baikie& Wilhelm, 2005) listed the benefits of expressive writing. These ranged from long-term benefits in health such as fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, an improved immune system among HIV patients and greater psychological well-being.
There is also evidence which suggests that expressive writing can induce positive medical benefits such as lung functioning in asthma, disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis and pain intensity in women with chronic pelvic pain (Lepore & Smyth, 2002).
It also positively impacts social behaviours such as reduced absenteeism from work and faster employment following a job loss (Norman, Lumley, Dooley, & Diamond, 2004).
Getting started with expressive writing
Although the original instruction (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986) for expressive writing focuses on one’s emotional upheavals, you do not have to be someone who is constantly pondering on your life’s most traumatic events (or be a serious novelist!) to gain positive benefits from expressive writing since most people are simply encouraged to write about personal events. If you would like to get started, then maybe write about your childhood memories, your relationships, your work life, or about any activities that you enjoy doing. In a nutshell, the topic you choose to write about is less important than how you choose to write about it. This means that whatever topic you choose to delve into, do not just write superficially. Instead, try to pour out the emotions attached to your chosen topic.
You may find it a bit awkward to start expressive writing, especially if you have never tried it before. But just like any other skills, expressive writing requires a bit of practice and then soon it will come more naturally. Once you have finished expressive writing, allow yourself some time to ponder upon on your written emotional disclosures. This is also a good time to be compassionate with yourself. And one last important tip: if you are not comfortable about someone else reading what you write, keep your writing in a safe place or just simply tear it up.
Mental health issues are indeed cumbersome issues to confront, but putting our feelings into words may help us unload stressors in a productive way, which may in turn improve our psychological well-being. So do not bottle up your emotions, grab a pen and start writing! Try it for a few days and find out for yourselves the healing powers of expressive writing.
A word of warning: a colleague of mine once told me that she personally found it necessary to write letters and emails to people that she will never send (i.e people who are no longer in her life). However, she also found that she could wallow too much in emotions of the past, when she allowed herself to write such letters to her heart’s content. And indeed, unlimited writing did no good to her health, in terms of growing stiff in her chair and getting repetitive strain in her hands, because she also writes a lot in her day job! Therefore, it may be wise to set limits if you can.
There are more tips like this available on our blog to help academics and PhD students to manage their well-being. More recently, we had an interesting piece from Kathy McKay on how to find strength in yourself and in others. Also, Amanda Ullman explored the myths we need to get over about work-life balance.
Connect with me and with other researchers on expressive writing through Piirus!
Image credit: Elvert Barnes, 2005, [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr