Photo: Amanda Dalbjorn
“You don’t remember me, but I was in your experiment a year ago. I just wanted to thank you. It changed my life.”
James Pennebaker has had a number of people say this to him over the years.
In the early 80’s he came across a study showing that people who experienced personal traumas but didn’t discuss them were more likely to get sick.
He wondered if just writing about their emotional upheavals could help people recover. And the research he did changed lives.
In the 30 years since, hundreds of studies have documented the effectiveness of expressive writing.
It helped with anxiety, tragedy, heartache . . . It even gave relief to those coping with cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, and AIDS.
People who write about their problems gain a host of benefits including feeling happier, sleeping better, and even getting better grades.
Across multiple studies, people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than they felt before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals (Lepore 1997). Other studies found improvement in overall well-being and improved cognitive functioning (Barclay & Skarlicki 2009).
I wanted to learn more, so I gave the man himself a call.
Jamie Pennebaker is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a number of books including:
In this post you’ll learn how writing can help you overcome emotional hardships and the best way to use it to help you get past tough times.
Let’s get started.
Can just 20 minutes of writing change your life?
Bottling up your problems is stressful. People who keep their struggles a secret go to the doctor 40% more often than those who don’t.
…among those who had traumas, those who kept their traumas secret went to physicians almost forty percent more often than those who openly talked about their traumas (Pennebaker & Susman 1988). Later research projects from multiple labs confirmed these results. Adults whose spouses had committed suicide or died suddenly in car accidents were healthier in the year following the death if they talked about the trauma than if they didn’t talk about it… Not talking about important issues in your life poses a significant health risk.
Some of us talk to friends or see a therapist when life gets hard. But not everyone.
It’s risky. Talking about your problems can mean feeling judged. You’re putting yourself on the line when you’re most vulnerable.
But writing lets you get many of the benefits of talking about your problems without the risk.
…in an ideal world, it works very similar to talking to a friend. The killer problem is when you talk to a friend or even a therapist, you’re putting yourself on the line. For it to work that other person has to be completely accepting, and the reality is we don’t tell our friends a lot of really deep and personal things because we think it might hurt the relationship. That’s the beauty of writing. You don’t have to worry about other people looking down on you or feeling nervous about putting yourself out there.
But what is it about writing that calms the mind and helps us heal emotionally?
Only then can it rest. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts into a coherent structure. It helps you make sense of life.
One thing is that writing helps to organize our experiences…What we find is that people who benefit tend to increase their use of words to suggest thinking. They’re using certain cognitive words. These include causal words like “because,” “cause and effect.” They include insight words: “understand,” “realize” “no” and so forth.
Not only do people who use expressive writing feel better afterward, but that relief has real world benefits.
Those who wrote about the stress of being laid off were more likely to find jobs.
Eight months after writing, fifty-two percent of the emotional writing group had new jobs compared with only twenty percent of the time management participants. The two groups went on the same number of interviews. The only difference was that the expressive writers were offered jobs (Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker 1994).
(For more on how to overcome regret, click here.)
So writing helps us open up when it doesn’t feel like there’s anyone we can talk to. And it makes sense of the things that shake up our lives.
So what’s the best way to actually do it? There are 4 steps:
1. Ask: “How long has it been?”
If you’re upset in the days immediately after a breakup or the death of a loved one, that’s natural.
But when you’re still feeling distressed months later, that’s when you need help and writing can really make a difference.
2. Commit to 20 minutes for four days
Commit to writing about what’s bothering you for 20 minutes on four consecutive days.
This is what the bulk of the research shows provides the best benefits. You can do more if you want; this is a minimum.
What if you want to keep writing after twenty minutes? Then keep writing. The twenty-minute rule is an arbitrary minimum. That is, plan to write for at least twenty minutes each day with the understanding that you can write more, but you shouldn’t write less… What if you find that you enjoy writing and want to continue past four days? Do it. Many people find that once they begin writing, they realize they have many issues to think about. Write for as many days as you need — just think of the four days as a minimum.
When’s the best time to do it? End of the workday seems to be a good time for many people.
Across multiple studies, we have had the most success with people writing at the end of their workday. If you have children and need to feed them, then after they have gone to bed might be a good time. The operative rule, however, is for you to have some free time after writing to let your mind reflect on what you have written.
(To learn more about what the words you use say about you, click here.)
Got it on your calendar? Good. Here’s what to do.
3. Write, write, write
Just write about what’s bothering you for 20 minutes straight.
Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t worry about what anyone might think. You can delete it or throw it out when you’re done writing.
Just write about what’s troubling you and don’t hold back.
Find a place you won’t get disturbed, and I want you to sit down and just begin writing about the thing that’s bothering you. Don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure or spelling. Just write. This is for you and for you alone. Plan to tear up what you’ve done when you finish. It’s not a letter to somebody. It’s not something for you to show someone to convince them that you are right. This is for you alone.
Longhand or typing doesn’t matter. Research even shows talking into a voice recorder works too.
You can write about the same event on each of the four days or you can write about different events. All that is entirely up to you. Just explore your very deepest thoughts and fears. That’s the basic idea.
(To learn about all the other issues writing can help you with, click here.)
In general, just doing the writing for 20 minutes for four days is enough to provide people with noticeable relief. But let’s go for bonus points.
There are a number of things Jamie has seen that correlate with better results.
4. Stuff that can help the process
When writing, it’s helpful to tie the issue into other areas of your life. How does the problem relate to your work? Your family? Your relationships?
Let’s say you’re having problems because of a failed love. You may find once you begin writing that it’s related to other topics. You might tie this event to other areas in your life. Your childhood, your relationship with your parents, your relationship with other people… You might tie it to work, you might even link it to who you want to be in the future, who you’ve been in the past and who you are now.
People tend to benefit most from expressive writing if they openly acknowledge emotions.
Emotional experience is part of a trauma. The ability to feel and label both the negative and the positive feelings that occurred during and following the trauma is important.
Constructing a story is powerful.
Creating a narrative, including a coherent beginning, middle, and end, is a well-documented part of trauma treatment and holds much promise for benefits from writing about trauma.
Switch perspectives. Those who benefit the most can see the event through other people’s eyes.
People who have experienced a trauma initially see it from one perspective — their own. Indeed, when individuals first write about a massive upheaval, they first describe what they saw, felt, and experienced. Recent studies indicate that people who benefit the most from writing have been able to see events through others’ eyes.
You’re not writing an accident report for an insurance company. Don’t be distant. Make your writing personal.
A guiding principle of expressive writing is that you express yourself openly and honestly. People who write in a cold, detached manner and who quote Shakespeare, Aristotle, or Henry Ford may be fine historians and may even write a great editorial in the local newspaper. But impressive writing is not the point of expressive writing. People who benefit the most from writing are able to find a voice that reflects who they are.
(To learn more about how to improve your writing skills in general, click here.)
Let’s round up the info and see what Jamie recommends about how to best fit this into our lives.
Here’s how to use writing to overcome the things that upset you:
- Has enough time passed? Are you suffering longer than you should? Then writing can help.
- Commit to four days of 20 minutes a day. Most people write at the end of their workday.
- Write nonstop for 20 minutes about what’s bothering you. Don’t worry about errors or what anyone might think. This is for you.
- Tying in other areas of your life, acknowledging emotions, telling a story, switching perspectives and making it personal are all associated with better recovery.
You don’t need to wait until you’re getting divorced or somebody dies to use this. You can write whenever you think it might help. It’s literary ibuprofen.
Think of expressive writing as a tool that will always be at your disposal, or like having medicine in your medicine cabinet. No need to take the medicine when you are healthy, but when you are under the weather, you can always turn to it.
The science and the numbers are great but I have one more thing to add: I’ve used this myself.
A few months ago someone I cared about deeply betrayed my trust. No apology afterward. No concern for my feelings.
It made it hard for me to trust anyone afterward. I was second-guessing the motives of everyone in my life.
After writing for just 20 minutes it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The rage stopped surging up. The rumination died down.
Chaos in your life doesn’t need to mean chaos in your head.
Okay, this blog post is over, folks. So maybe now’s the time to stop reading and start writing.
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