Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval posited “expressive writing” as a powerful tool for ridding oneself of oppressive emotions, thereby improving health. Pennebaker recounted a study he conducted in the 1980s of college students and employees of a large corporation. Those who revealed their trauma — and most people reported that they had experienced some kind of serious upset before the age of 17 — reported fewer than half as many trips to the doctor than those who’d kept their troubled experience to themselves.
In a subsequent study, Pennebaker had a group of college students write freely (and completely confidentially, of course) about a traumatic experience for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days. He then tracked them for three months and found that the students visited the doctor significantly less than another group of students who’d been instructed to write about a superficial topic and a third group that hadn’t written at all.
Based on this survey and dozens of other similar experiments, Pennebaker concluded that writing honestly and uninhibitedly about stressful events in a structured way can actually result in a better functioning immune system. It can lower blood pressure and heart-rate levels. According to the book, studies reveal that asthma patients who engaged in “emotional writing” breathed easier after doing so, and arthritis sufferers doing the same felt a lessening of pain; AIDS patients had higher white blood cell counts, and cancer patients slept better.
Although initially people often get weepy after the writing exercise, ultimately they feel wiser and better when the initial sadness passes, according to Pennebaker. Their anxiety lessens over time. They are less likely to ruminate and mope.
College students have gotten higher grades after participating in expressive writing, the book noted. People in general relate better to others when they write to alleviate their anger. Pennebaker recounted yet another example of a study, in this case a group of men who’d recently been laid off from their jobs. After participating in an expressive writing program, they were more at ease at subsequent job interviews and less likely to vent their hostility, making them more employable.
But why not just talk about your troubles with a close friend or family member? Wouldn’t that have the same beneficial effect? Not always, wrote Pennebaker. The advantage of writing about the troubling event is that one is entirely free of being judged. The person can be — indeed, must be —completely honest in order for the writing to have the intended purgative effect.
Millbrook workshop encourages writing
Karen Ann Chaffee, a former college writing instructor who now heads her own small press, Flamingo Publications, and helps run The Mailing Words/Fountain Press with her husband, Michael Sedgwick, based in Millbrook, offered a two-hour workshop, entitled Writing and Healing, based on Pennebaker’s ideas, at the Merritt Bookstore (also in Millbrook) on March 19. Acknowledging her own abusive childhood, Chaffee said in an interview that she had suffered from clinical depression and finally underwent therapy when she in her forties and in graduate school at SUNY-New Paltz. She also discovered Pennebaker’s book. While she had always kept a journal, by doing the writing exercises outlined in the book she found herself connecting with her feelings in a way she never had before.
For example, she said through the writing she discovered her hidden anger directed at her grandmother, who had died when Chaffee was 13. “She was the only one who had stood up for me and protected me,” she recalled. “I was so angry and didn’t know it — until one day I was writing about how I was feeling about something and it came out. I was so astonished I was still mad at her, the person I had loved the most. For me, that was very healing. Through writing and recognizing my feelings and accepting them, I’ve become a healthier person.” Writing had helped her get off anti-depressant medication.
Wanting to share Pennebaker’s program with others, Chaffee held a week-long workshop on writing and healing at the Chautauqua Institution in 2007. She recalled that one participant, the child of Holocaust survivors, “really accessed through the writing her own feelings about how that had affected her life negatively, how she had blamed her parents for not letting go. She realized she had no concept of what being a holocaust survivor is, and maybe it hadn’t been possible for her parents to let go.” By the end of the class, “she felt lighter,” Chaffee said.
While there wasn’t sufficient time at the workshop in Millbrook to explore expressive writing and its beneficial effects in depth, Chaffee assigned the six people present to do a couple of exercises that gave one a taste of what it was all about. (The $40 fee also included a work book with many sources that outlined a program one could purse at home, plus Pennebaker’s book.) We were asked to write for five minutes about our earliest memory, followed by five minutes of scribbling about a frightening experience. People were free to share what they wrote or not.
The memory exercise was for me underwhelming, given that my first memory is utterly mundane — sitting on a chaise lounge in the yard drinking a big glass of ginger ale when I was a two or three and feeling big. Others in the group had more compelling memories, including a dead relative lying in a coffin and a boisterous seal at an aquarium. In the second exercise, I wrote about an assault I experienced as a teenager and found my heart pounding afterwards. However, I had shared this trauma with friends over the years and felt it had long ceased to affect me; what I was really writing was my memory of the memory of fear, rather than the fear itself.
Perhaps a better example would have been the time I lost my nine-year-old son at the Eiffel Tower for 45 terrifying minutes, a fear that is still palpable — though the objective nature of the trauma (what caring parent wouldn’t have felt the same) perhaps didn’t qualify it for the kind of therapeutic airing-out that’s the aim of expressive writing.
The workbook lists suggested topics, such as a divorce, death and job loss.
Don’t write what you don’t feel
Chaffee also had us follow up with what we were feeling as we wrote about the frightening event. As one gets deeper into the writing, she also recommended shifting to positive words — although, on the other hand, simply as a proscription this would work against the value of the writing. A cardinal rule of expressive writing is that you don’t write what you don’t feel.
Another exercise Chaffee recommended — included in the workbook — consisted of writing about an upsetting argument and then rewriting it from the other person’s perspective. Doing this is a way of becoming more objective and empathetic, paving the way for forgiveness. The workbook also listed “writing prompts,” such as writing a scene that includes three people from your past; a detailed story of your most romantic or unromantic experience; about a person who has betrayed you; a significant loss; and a scene between your parents talking about you.
Chafee said ideally one would write for 20 minutes for at least four consecutive days, including as many details about the event and one’s feelings as possible. Acknowledgement of one’s emotions, constructing a coherent story, switching perspectives, and finding one’s voice are other essential features of the writing exercise.
Pennebaker suggested writing in longhand, and he noted that in exceptional cases a person becomes deeply upset and “flips out” during an exercise. In that case, they should immediately stop writing, he said. He also doesn’t recommend writing about a recent, deeply upsetting trauma, such as a divorce, from which one is still reeling. Beyond the basic, four-day exercise, his book also discussed the value of stream of consciousness and semiautomatic writing as a way to break down mental blocks, and it provided tips on how to construct a story.
Like so many other things in life, whether effective expressive writing can improve one’s state of mind and health depends on the degree of commitment. I’m a little skeptical that this kind of writing can result in tangible benefits one can’t get from simply confiding in a close, trusted friend, who can provide helpful feedback. But then again, it certainly can’t hurt.++