For men and women who have experienced a traumatic or stressful event, medical experts believe that there may be provided comfort in the emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.
Expressive writing, developed in the 1980’s primarily by James W. Pennebaker, is a form of therapeutic writing designed to gradually ease the feelings of emotional trauma.
The Expressive Writing Paradigm
The typical writing instructions, penned The Expressive Writing Paradigm, are as follows:
For the next 4 days, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives; to your past, your present or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or about different topics each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.
You needn’t worry about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.
The Effects of Expressive Writing
The short-term effects generally displayed from the use of expressive writing therapy, were conditionally and more often than not, negative. Most notable of these being an increase in distress, plummeting mood, and some lingering, physical symptoms (lowered immunity, psychosomatic pains).
Over the course of continuous, multiple therapy sessions, patients had begun to report benefits in both physical and emotional health. Some benefits included less stress-related visits to doctors, improvements to the liver and lung functions, lower blood pressure, a more positive mood, and other various social aspects of life.
The suppression of negative, trauma-related thoughts is believed to lead to a compromise of immune functioning. According to Pennebaker, through the use of this therapy, patients have also gone on to show a marked improvement in immune system functioning, “reducing stress through the release of HIV related anxiety.”
Studies have also shown an improvement in lung function for patients suffering from asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. Some cancer patients also reported benefits consisting of better physical health, pain reduction, and less need for healthcare services. Expressive writing may also alleviate chronic pelvic pain in women, sleep-onset latency, and cystic fibrosis hospitalizations.
In preselected groups, psychological difficulties have been met with mixed results. Students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology have shown some physical improvements but not all studies indicated benefits.
In comparison to control writing, the expressive writing seemed much less constructive to victims of childhood abuse. Control writing also seemed more beneficial for individuals with suicidal tendencies. As well as those children within an alcoholic household, females with issues on body image, and sufferers of bereavement.
Further study is needed to produce far greater results in determining the true effect if any, that expressive writing can have on traumatized individuals. The evidence presented indicates a solid path toward discovering a valid remedy for stress-related anxieties in patients.
Under no circumstance is this treatment ready to replace standard medical treatment. With its short-term potential to cause immediate distress, the regimen can lead to a more detrimental outcome by worsening over time. However, the benefits shown suggest that there is sufficient enough proof for therapists and clinicians to enact expressive writing programs for those survivors, with cautious optimism.