How to Use Expressive Writing to Relieve Stress

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What expressive writing isn’t is, it is not primarily reading material for other people. You don’t have to be scrupulous about proper sentence syntax and grammar. You’re not required to take an objective approach nor are you bound by certain literary rules. And you’re not writing to educate or inform readers.

Expressive writing is an outlet for thoughts and emotions that are bottled up inside you and causing you pain, anxiety and distress. It is especially helpful for people who do not want to talk to others about their problems and the accompanying emotional trauma. Writing for yourself allows you to release your innermost thoughts and feelings without having to disclose them to well-meaning friends or family.

It was Dr. James W. Pennebaker, social psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin who first studied the health benefits of expressive writing. A group of normal college students was asked to write about their most upsetting experiences for 15 minutes on 4 successive days. Another group was tasked to write, with the same frequency, about trivial topics. Four to six months after the experiment, the group who had written about personal traumatic events had fewer health problems, as self-reported and by objective evaluation, than the other group.

Although Pennebaker’s initial research found that this form of writing benefited people’s physical health, such as fewer frequencies of migraine and asthma and better sleep, more recent studies have found that expressive writing relieves stress and reduces anxiety, especially in people who are grieving or have been  deserted or abused.

If you want to try writing to help you cope with stress and agitation, lift up your mood and improve your psychological demeanor, here’s how to go about it. Some people find comfort in writing using the traditional pen and paper while others prefer the digital way.

How to Relieve Stress Through Writing

  • Write every day for a specified time period about a certain traumatic experience.

If the painful event is recent, you can usually write easily and continuously. You’ll explore your emotions and write without restraint, knowing you don’t have to share it with others. The act of putting down on paper what you are going through is a cathartic relief, providing you a means to let go of pain, anger and other negative emotions. Afterwards, reading what you have written gives you clarity and a better understanding of the event and your reaction to it.

Psychologist Susan Lutgendorf of the University of Iowa says, “An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”

  • Focus on the meaning of the experience and how you felt about it.

It is important to concentrate on the meaning of the experience and what you can learn from it rather than keep going over what happened again and again. Simply rehashing the ordeal over and over in your mind is counterproductive and activates the stress. The focus is to grow and learn from the event.

There are essays of people who have used writing therapy to deal with sad episodes in their lives and almost all of them agree that it helped them move forward and become better persons because they see the situation from another perspective.

How Expressive Writing Helps

Further studies of Dr. Pennebaker and other researchers found that writing puts a stop to wallowing in self-pity by releasing suppressed feelings. The following processes also help in reaping the benefits of writing:

  • Writing about a traumatic incident gives clarity and order to your thoughts about it, and is a way of releasing your pent-up emotions.
  • The act of writing helps you learn how to handle and control your feelings.
  • Writing about the event becomes a mental strategy to get out of the endless cycle of thinking about what happened’ this leads to unhealthy brooding and rumination.
  • Writing for yourself paves the way for you to open up to other people and seek social support.

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