How to Use Expressive Writing to Heal from Trauma

How To Use Expressive Writing To Heal From Trauma

How to Use Expressive Writing to Heal from Trauma

By Tara Rullo, LCSW

Have you ever felt relief after writing about something troubling?

Personally, the experience of getting my thoughts and opinions sorted out and onto the page usually feels cathartic.

It turns out there’s a scientific reason behind this catharsis. Dr. James Pennebaker, a pioneer in the field of psychology, has significantly contributed to our understanding of the therapeutic benefits of expressive writing.

Dr. Pennebaker’s experiments in the late 1980s at the University of Texas at Austin involved participants writing about their most traumatic experiences for 20 minutes over four days.

The instructions were minimal. Participants were asked to write for the entire 20 minutes. If they ran out of things to say, they were instructed to start again from the top and write until the time ran out.

Pennebaker’s groundbreaking discovery?

Those who engaged in expressive writing (as compared to a control group prompted to write non-emotional descriptions of recent events) reported feeling happier and less negative than before, and remarkably, they even exhibited improved physical health outcomes with fewer visits to the health center.

The word was out: a short-term, no-cost, private, writing exercise could improve outcomes for people with traumatic pasts.

Differences Between Expressive Writing and Journaling

I should admit something here.

I detest journaling.

When I initially heard about expressive writing, I instinctively equated it with journaling, which, well, didn’t excite me in the least.

I’ve tried journaling at various times in my life, usually when someone else tells me about their wonderful journaling practice, and I start thinking that I, too, could feel excited about journaling.

Well, it never works out.

When I try to journal, I often end up simply staring at the page.

Or I’ll start writing about something that happened to me and get immediately, deeply, bored. I mean I just lived through my day, why do I now have to sit here and write a report on it?

However, a deeper look into expressive writing revealed significant differences between it and journaling, and sparked a newfound hope that expressive writing could work for me.

Here are Some Key Differences

Expressive writing:
• centers on processing specific emotional experiences or traumas, often with a focus on understanding and exploring deep emotions linked to these events.
• is time-limited, with sessions spread out over a defined period. The primary aim is therapeutic and is outcome-oriented, targeting specific therapeutic outcomes such as trauma processing or stress reduction.

• is more open-ended, encompassing a broader range of topics from daily happenings to thoughts and feelings, and is generally less structured.
• can be therapeutic, but it’s also used for record-keeping, boosting creativity, or self-reflection.
• is used in various formats and with various styles including bullet journaling, gratitude journaling, and dream journaling, each with different aims and formats.

What Exactly is Expressive Writing?

So if expressive writing is not journaling, what is it?

Expressive writing is a reflective practice that focuses on expressing emotional responses to life events.

During an expressive writing session, you can write about anything as long as you are describing your emotional experience. Topics could be anything from everyday frustrations, to significant life changes, to past trauma.

In studies, participants are encouraged not to worry about spelling, style or grammar.

The writing process itself holds the healing power, not the finished product.

In fact, when writing for therapeutic outcomes, you can throw out the finished product after each writing session.

As long as you write about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in an honest and unfiltered way, research shows, you will benefit emotionally.

How Does Expressive Writing Work?

Since Pennebaker’s original study, countless research studies have been conducted on the effects of expressive writing.

A 2019 study of 52 traumatized university students revealed that students who engaged in expressive writing experienced post traumatic growth and were more able to make meaningful connections about their traumatic experience.

The researchers attributed the students’ post-traumatic growth to their use of cognitive words like “think,” “understand,” “realize,” “know,” “remember,” “believe,” and “imagine” in their expressive writing.

These words are crucial as they facilitate the process of meaning-making, enabling individuals to make sense of stressful events, which plays a key role in the healing process.

This research really hit home for me, especially when I think about what makes some memoirs successful which to me lies in the ability of the author to take us back to their painful past experiences, but still keep the perspective grounded in the here and now.

As a reader, you deeply feel what they went through, but there’s also a comforting feeling knowing they made it through to a better place. Expressive writing encourages this kind of perspective, distance and meaning making.

The good news is, you don’t need to write a memoir to get the benefits of expressive writing. Just give yourself 20 minutes, pick a topic, and get writing.

What Makes Expressive Trauma Effective in Trauma Resolution?

A quick search on Google Scholar opens up a world of research on expressive writing. I read some of the studies and scrolled through over 45 pages of abstract titles.

The scope is truly impressive, covering a diverse range of positive outcomes. Positive results were shown in a number of populations including:

• aiding adolescent bullying victims with anxiety
• reducing math anxiety in middle schoolers
• accelerating wound healing
• improving emotional reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic
• improving the psychological and physical health of breast cancer survivors
• enhancing body-self esteem

The benefits of expressive writing in trauma therapy can be outlined through these key therapeutic mechanisms:

Emotional Release: Writing about traumatic experiences fosters emotional release and facilitates the acknowledgment of previously suppressed feelings, a crucial step in trauma resolution.
Creating Distance from Trauma: Putting thoughts and emotions into words helps individuals experience distance from past events, which can lessen the impact of traumatic memories
Restoring a Sense of Control: For those who have felt powerless due to their trauma, expressive writing can restore a sense of agency and control.
Physiological Benefits: Engaging in expressive writing can lead to reduced stress responses. Psychological benefits are especially significant for trauma survivors, aiding in physical as well as emotional healing.

As a Writer, What Do I Need to Do to Practice Expressive Writing?

If you’re usually writing with an audience in mind, switching to writing just for yourself is a whole different ball game. Here’s how you can make the most of it:

1. Shake Up Your Routine: Try something new to set the mood for your personal writing. Maybe sit somewhere different, write at an unusual time for you, or use a fun pen or notebook. A change in scenery or tools can signal to your brain that this writing session is just for you.
2. Set a Timer: To keep yourself from clock-watching, just set a timer for 15–20 minutes. Once it starts, dive into your writing and let the world fade away for a bit.
3. Forget About Audience: Just let the words flow. No one will read this writing, so write for yourself and yourself alone. Don’t worry about form or style. Don’t worry at all, just write.
4. Let It All Out: Pour out whatever’s on your mind and heart. This is your private space, so feel free to express anything and everything you feel, no holds barred.
5. Your Words, Your Choice: After you’re done, do whatever feels right with what you’ve written. Trash it, save it, burn it — it’s all up to you.