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

Writing heals: scientific studies demonstrate what poets have always known

Marni Norwich

Scientific studies demonstrate what journal-keepers and other writers already know: writing is healing, and not just for the soul. In an article for Psychology Today titled “Writing and Healing: Exploring the Power of Written Word in Mental and Physical Wellbeing”, author Catherine McCall notes that University of Texas scientist James Pennebaker has found that translating events into language affects brain and immune functions. His subjects tested lower for stress levels and higher for lymphocytes – germ-fighting blood cells.

“Writing was found to reduce anxiety and depression, improve grades in college, and aid people in finding jobs. The more people described positive emotions in their writing, the more likely they were to be healthier afterward. But describing negative emotions either excessively or very little or not at all correlated with poorer health. Describing negative emotions in moderation correlated with improved health. Thus, we profit most from understanding positive and negative aspects.”

McCall notes that Pennebaker also discovered that when one writes repeatedly about a difficult experience, the emotional weight of the trauma is reduced. “Writing moves us to resolution; it becomes psychologically complete and therefore there’s no need to ruminate about it,” she writes.

Apparently, report-writing just won’t cut it if you need to mend a festering wound of the physical or spiritual variety

Pennebaker’s work correlates with another study reported by Time magazine (2013) demonstrating that the verbal expression of emotions can speed up wound healing by nearly 50 per cent.

Talking about difficult experiences can be a way of easing the emotional pain of trauma, but the latest research shows that expressing emotions in words can also speed physical healing. The study involved asking people to write over a set period of time about their most traumatic experiences and comparing the results in wound healing to a control group who were asked to write about their daily plans, but without delving into their feelings. “Eleven days after the biopsy, 76% of the group that had written about trauma had fully healed while only 42% of the other group had,” writes neuroscience journalist, Maia Szalavitz.

Szalavitz cites previous studies where emotionally-expressive writing reduced viral load in HIV-positive patients while increasing immunity, and increased effectivity of the hepatitis B vaccination by increasing antibody levels and speeding wound healing.

At the level of psychology, she cites a study that demonstrated that writing about traumatic combat experiences may improve marital satisfaction among soldiers. In another study, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who wrote about their traumas did not experience a reduction in symptoms, but they did experience a reduction in stress hormones, and their moods improved.

In an article for the American Psychological Association, author Bridget Murray notes that the type of writing one does is directly connected to its healing capacity. She quotes health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, PhD, of the University of Iowa: “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.” Murray cites Dr. Lutgendorf’s journaling study in which she suggests that “people who relive upsetting events without focusing on meaning report poorer health than those who derive meaning from the writing. They even fare worse than people who write about neutral events. Also, those who focus on meaning develop greater awareness of positive aspects of a stressful event.”

Apparently, report-writing just won’t cut it if you need to mend a festering wound of the physical or spiritual variety. It seems that a measure of mindfulness is paramount when utilizing writing for its healing potential. This is something journal-writers and poets have known forever, but it’s gratifying to hear it demonstrated by researchers and reflected in the scientific media.

Writing + Healing

Welcome to the Writing for Recovery blog! In these pages I explore the multi-faceted connections between healing and writing. I have devoted my life – and much of my poetry – to these two phenomena, and I hope you’ll find these posts both educational and entertaining. I welcome your feedback and extend the space to guest bloggers, so please feel invited to write in and share your thoughts!

Healing writing wishes,