Writing for Wellbeing
Expressive writing is a process tool for managing our response to major life challenges, stressors and traumatic experiences.
Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas did the first notable research into the benefits of expressive writing. In his landmark research project, Pennebaker developed an expressive writing prompt to uncover the potential health benefits of writing about emotional upheaval. Pennebaker’s research project has been replicated hundreds of times with positive outcomes.
Expressive writing is personal and emotional writing without regard to form or other writing conventions like spelling, punctuation and verb agreement. Expressive writing pays no attention to propriety – it is simply an expression of what is on your mind.
Expressive writing pays more attention to feelings than the events, memories, objects, or people in the contents of a narrative. Like narrative writing, expressive writing may have the arc of a story’s beginning, middle, and end.
Sometimes expressive writing behaves like a story that starts off messy but finds a clear resolution by the end. More often, expressive writing is turbulent and unpredictable, and that is ok. Expressive writing is less about what happened and finding solutions and more about how you feel about what happened. It is a tool for processing your experience.
Become Your Own Researcher
To help you get a better understanding of expressive writing and what it can do for you, you are invited to become your own researcher. Please read these general instructions completely before you begin writing. The writing prompt is at the end of these guidelines.
- Time: Write a minimum of twenty (20) minutes per day for four (4) consecutive days.
- Set yourself up: Find a comfortable time and place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. If a private space is not available, you can ask people not to disturb you while you’re doing this practice. Do whatever you need to help you stay on task–you might wear noise-canceling headphones, and put away distractions.
- Use any writing materials that are available to you. You can use a word processor, or physical notebook, binder paper, or even a piece of scrap paper.
- Write continuously: Try to write without stopping. Do not worry about punctuation, spelling, and grammar.
- Write only for yourself: Try not to edit or judge what you write. Do not worry about form or style, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, or grammar. All your writing is confidential and just for you.
- Observe the Flip-out Rule: If you get into writing, and you feel that you cannot write about a certain event because it will push you over the edge, STOP writing! Pick an easier event or part of the experience to start with.
- Expect heavy boots: Many people briefly feel a bit saddened or down after expressive writing, especially on the first day or two. Usually this feeling fades out with time.
The Writing Prompt
You are asked to write for twenty minutes each day for four consecutive days.
In your writing, identify the most relevant challenging, stressful or traumatic experience you are facing, keeping in mind the ‘flip-out rule’. Explore what’s been happening in connection to that experience, perhaps taking a look at:
- How it has affected you – your deepest emotions and thoughts about it.
- How it connects to different parts of your life. For example, childhood or earlier life experiences, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, relatives or other people important to you.
- How you feel about your future – what matters most to you and how you want to be in the future.
If you are concerned about someone else seeing what you wrote, put your writing in a safe place or destroy it. But if you are not worried that someone may read what you wrote, keep it, so you can come back to it after you have completed the four-day exercise.
[Optional Extra] After the four days of writing, try writing from the perspective of a neutral observer or the perspectives of other people involved in the situation.
Give yourself time after writing to reflect on what you have written and to be compassionate with yourself. Perhaps make time to do something nice for yourself – a walk, a bath, a nap, listening to music, time with a close friend.
A week or two after you have completed the four days of expressive writing, take time to reflect on any changes in yourself – the way you think, feel and behave – and your life.