“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.
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 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.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.