Why Does Expressive Writing Work?


Thanks to the ground-breaking work of American psychologist James Pennebaker* and others who have followed, we’ve got the studies to prove that expressive writing is a powerful tool for psychological and physical healing. But why does it work?

No one seems to know for sure, but theories abound. Here are some concepts around what makes expressive writing so effective.

Pennebaker notes that some researchers believe the benefits of expressive writing might be due to habituation – an increased exposure to trauma that can reduce people’s reaction over time. He writes that other theories explain that the benefits occur through “identifying, labeling, and integrating negative emotions into the broader context of one’s life.”

An article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, a newsletter of the Harvard Medical School, suggests that there could be many factors underlying the benefits of expressive writing. These include:

  • thinking about an experience and expressing emotions
  • the writing process supporting the regulation of emotion
  • how constructing a story about a traumatic event can liberate the writer from cyclical thinking
  • the role that the inner work of writing plays in encouraging people to talk to others about their pain

In an article for the US News and World Report called “The Health Benefits of Expressive Writing”, Stacey Colino lists other theories about how expressive writing functions to heal. These include:

  • the catharsis that comes through expression
  • the way that writing can support the organization of thoughts to lend meaning to the chaos of experience
  • writing helps people to regulate emotions through lending the writer a sense of control

Colino also cites studies published in the April 2016 journal Emotion demonstrating that expressive writing helps people gain distance from events and thus reduces their emotional reactivity.

In a New York Times article “Writing your way to happiness”, Tara Parker-Pope quotes University of Virginia Psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson. In reference to a study where married people wrote about their conflicts from a neutral perspective, which reflected in improved marital happiness, Parker-Pope quotes Wilson as saying that “ these writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself.” He adds: “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.” Wilson is the author of Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By.

In “Expressive writing: An Alternative to Traditional Methods”, a chapter in Low-cost approaches to promote physical and mental health, edited by Luciano L’Abate, the authors** suggest that there may not be a single explanation to account for the complex issue of emotional writing.  “Any causal explanation can be dissected at multiple levels of analysis ranging from social explanations to changes in neurotransmitter levels.”

*James Pennebaker is a social psychologist, Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

** Chapter 13, by Ewa Kacewicz, Richard B. Slatcher, and James W. Pennebaker