Many of us are struggling with anxiety, depression and being overwhelmed. Would you like to know about a proven, evidence-based approach to improve your sense of well-being? In this episode we’re going to talk about journaling, or expressive writing, as the psychologists call it.
James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas has published extensively about the benefits of expressive writing. It’s based on his personal experience, where as a young married man he started fighting with his wife. He became depressed and began to drink and smoke too much. Then one day he started jotting down how he was feeling. It was not a literary masterpiece or even a proper essay—he just scribbled down how he was feeling. But then a curious thing happened—the more he wrote, the better he felt. Soon he was well again, and realised that he may have stumbled upon something worthwhile. He then spent the next 40 years of his life investigating what is now known as expressive writing. It’s what you and I would just call journaling, especially if you dig into your emotions and feelings.
This is how to do it. All you have to do is write continuously for 20 minutes, not worrying about spelling or grammar, as you are only writing it for yourself. Just pour your thoughts onto the page about something that is extremely personal and important to you. Explore an emotional challenge that’s been affecting your life, such as a traumatic experience of some kind. Let go of any judgement or embarrassment and just let the words pour out. Do this for four consecutive days and the research says that you should experience an improved sense of well-being.
In their first study, published in 1986, Pennebaker and Beall randomly assigned people to write either about a trauma or about a superficial topic for four days, 15 minutes per day. They found that confronting the emotions and thoughts surrounding deeply personal issues improved physical health. This included fewer visits to the doctor, fewer reports of aspirin usage, and overall more positive long term emotions.
In another study, Pennebaker divided people into two groups. One group was asked to write about their difficulties for 20 minutes a day, for three days. They wrote about sexual abuse, breakups, abandonment by a parent, illness, and death. The other group wrote about everyday things, such as what shoes they were wearing. The results showed that the people who wrote about their troubles were markedly calmer and happier than those who described their shoes or clothing. Even several months later, they were physically healthier with lower blood pressure and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships and being more successful at work.
In a different study, Pennebaker focused on a group of somewhat despondent engineers who had been laid off four months earlier by a computer company. Most of them were over fifty and had worked at the company for their entire working life. Sadly, none had found new work by the time the study commenced. Once again, he divided the subjects into two groups and he asked one group to write about their feelings. The other group was asked to describe more neutral topics. Within months, the men who had written about their feelings were three times more likely than the control group to have found work.
What he found was that this form of expressive writing encouraged people to see their misfortunes not as flaws or imperfections, but as seeds for their growth. He found that the writers who thrived after pouring their hearts onto the page tended to use phrases such as “I’ve learned,” “It struck me that,” and “I understand.”
A meta‐analysis on the effects of expressive writing was published by Frattaroli in 2006. She analysed almost 150 randomised expressive writing experiments that had used some variation of the original Pennebaker and Beall methodology and found an overall positive effect. She noted that the effect size was small but positive and therefore important in practical terms.
Like us you may be wondering why this technique is so powerful. Spoiler alert: if you’re expecting a simple explanation for the effectiveness of this approach—there is none. Numerous explanations have been proposed, and many have been found to be partially correct. However, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that there is no such thing as a single cause for a complex phenomenon.
What is simple though, is how to undertake the process. To recap, grab some paper and a pen, find somewhere comfortable away from distractions and just start writing. Tap into your emotions and write about something that’s been troubling you. Do that for 20 minutes, on four consecutive days and you should start feeling more at ease and in balance with life. At the end of that time, reflect on what you’ve written and how you’re feeling about the topics you have covered. If you are worried someone else will read it and think less of you, then tear it up or burn the evidence! It’s an exercise for you and you alone, unless of course you want to share it with a trusted friend or counsellor.
Well, you’ve read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below and tell us about your experiences with journaling or expressive writing, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation—join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!
Thanks folks for joining us on this Enablers of change blog post. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!
Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: a meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 132(6), 823. Available online.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an
understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 274‐
- Available online.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2007). Expressive Writing, Emotional Upheavals, and Health. In: Foundations of health psychology (pp. 263-284). Oxford University Press. episode