Stress, trauma, and unexpected live developments that can make many people suffer emotionally and mentally. One of the ways that can make people copes with the emotional fallout of stressful or traumatic life experiences is the expressive writing about thoughts and feelings that arise from such events.
Dr. James W. Pennebaker, currently chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin, has conducted much of the research on the health benefits of expressive writing. In an early study, Dr. Pennebaker asked 46 healthy college students to write about personally traumatic life events or trivial topics for 15 minutes on four consecutive days. After six months of doing this experiment, compared with students who wrote about inconsequential topics, those who wrote about traumatic events visited the campus health center less often and used a pain reliever less frequently.
Most studies have evaluated the impact of expressive writing on people with physical health conditions such as sleep apnea, asthma, migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, and cancer. Also, most of the results measured are physical, and the findings — such as blood pressure and heart rate — suggest that expressive writing initially may annoy people but eventually helps them to relax.
Recently, researchers have evaluated if expressive writing helps reduce stress and anxiety. A study found that this technique benefited chronically stressed caregivers of older adults. And a study by researchers at the University of Chicago found that anxious test-takers who wrote briefly about their thoughts and feelings before taking an important exam earned better grades than those who did not.
Participants usually write non-stop while exploring their deepest thoughts and feelings without inhibition (and that is why writing samples remain confidential). They may also use the exercise to understand how the traumatic event may revive memories of other stressful events.
According to this theory, people who had suppressed a traumatic memory might learn to overcome the experience once they expressed their emotions about it. But it is not the only benefit of expressive writing.
The act of thinking about an experience and expressing thoughts about it is important because writing helps people to organize thoughts and give a meaning of a traumatic experience.
Or the process of writing may make them able to learn to better regulate their emotions. It’s also possible that writing about something fosters an intellectual process helps someone break free of the endless mental cycling more typical of brooding or rumination.
Finally, when people open up privately about a traumatic event, they are more likely to talk with others about it — suggesting that writing leads indirectly to contact with social support that can aid healing.