Expression—the act of making one’s thoughts and feelings known through outward gestures. Everyone seeks expression, and everyone longs to be heard. Writing is one form of expression that has stood the test of time. All kinds of people, from politicians to scientists, have used writing to voice their innermost thoughts and feelings. Expressive writing can be a form of therapy and healing; or it can be an escape for reflection and self-help. A person does not have to be a best-selling author to write from the heart or an award-winning songwriter to voice the spirit.
All a person needs are a pen and paper and life, experiences, and emotion. Whether it be in the form of a journal, diary, letter, poem or song; expressive writing can improve mental health, enhance emotional intelligence, and build self- understanding. In recent years, mental health awareness has steadily become one of the top concerns in the world. The fast-paced environment of today’s world presents every person’s life with an arsenal of stressors that result in many common mental disorders such as stress, anxiety, depression, and pressure.
Scientists, therapists and doctors seek new cures and coping methods for these mental strains. One of the leading researchers on expressive writing and its health benefits, Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology, James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin reflects, “Concealing or holding back powerful emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, I reasoned, was itself stressful” (Pennebaker 226). People often experience difficulty in disclosing personal information with close relations and often choose inhibition over expression. Writing provides a private expressive outlet for the individual to muddle through confusing, disruptive thoughts and feelings without agonizing over what another person might be thinking.
Without the need for professional therapists and scientific equipment, expressive writing can be put into effect by the individual’s own motivation (Smyth and Helm 230). Strong emotions are sometimes painful to deal with, and people often find it difficult to recognize or confront them. Many individuals choose to bury those emotions, but they come back as even greater monsters like depression, panic, and bitterness, and this results in ultimate dissatisfaction with life and can cause suicidal thoughts, relationship dysfunctions, and extreme loneliness.
Expressive writing can be the means of escape for the individual. “Outrage, confusion, love—whatever is in your mind, let it find a way to the page” (Keillor 253). People do not have to wait until they feel comfortable enough to share their struggles, pains, and strong emotions; they can work through them and make what sense they can of them on their own so they will be ready to seek the sensitivity of another soul. According to the article, “Expressive Writing for Mental Health: Putting an Experience into Words May Ease Stress and Trauma,” privately opening up about negative impactful events may lead the individual to reach out for social support (6). Expressing emotions is important in the health of any individual; therefore, learning to effectively express in private can serve as a guide for meaningful expression in close social circles, which helps in the healing process. Expressive writing not only positively effects mental health; it also enhances emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence defines the level of a person’s ability to be aware of, control, and express emotions and how well they are handled in social settings. People’s level of emotional intelligence (EI) is determined by how often they embrace and express emotions. A person who does not learn to effectively and thoroughly express emotion cannot have a high level of EI; thus, it affects acceptable interaction with others. According to J.J. Gross, “Conversely, emotion dysregulation (for instance, the inability to manage hostile or negative emotion) can lead to work and relationship difficulties and is associated with clinical problems such as anxiety and mood disorders” (qtd. in Wing et. al. 1293).
Learning to regulate and responsibly express emotions should be an important concern for all people but sometimes they do not know where to begin or how to learn. Expressive writing is a basic yet powerful channel to privately express and regulate emotions. For people who are not used to writing about their deep feelings or just writing in general it may be uncomfortable, cumbersome, and ultimately unpleasant but it will eventually help them to relax (“Expressive Writing” 6). People who have never been taught how to express emotions or that talking about feelings is important may discover and reveal things about themselves which, when properly dealt with, can improve life satisfaction and positive well-being.
“It’s also possible that writing about something fosters an intellectual process… that helps someone break free of the endless mental cycling more typical of brooding or rumination” (“Expressive Writing” 6). Writing helps people organize their thoughts and gives meaning to situations, life and experiences which can bring about a brighter outlook towards life, self, and relationships. Expressive writing allows people to get in touch with themselves, deal with the undealt with, discover the unknown, and in the process, they will know more about themselves and the people around them.
They will be more in touch with themselves–able to define and describe their feelings; as well as in touch with others: able to tune into the feelings, empathize and relate to others on a more personal level. The process of avoiding and forgetting is more painful than the process of approaching and accepting. Joan Didion confirms, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, we forget who we were” (112), and in the mission to forget, people lose sight of themselves—who they are. The continual attempt to push unwanted feelings away and hold them down weighs down the spirit of the individual and stifles the enjoyment and happiness in life.
Expressive writing allows people to build self-understanding by exploring the natural feelings that occur during daily life. The subject that a person chooses to write about does not have to be only about negative occurrences or only positive events; it can be a mixture of both with some random thoughts about trivial things as well. It does not matter what the individual writes about; “How it felt to me… Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point” (Didion 108-109). The point of expressive writing is to create a story that is a reflection of oneself so that knowledge and understanding of oneself is clear and present. Expressive writing also promotes reflection and self-examination which gives the individual the insight into what is important, what needs to change, and finding purpose for life.
In a study to find the benefits of positive writing in which the participants rated how they felt about life at each measurement time during the writing period, it was found that their satisfaction with life increased consistently (Wing et al. 1294). As people reflect on their life, discover hidden emotional problems, and privately open up about personal information they can find beauty, satisfaction, enjoyment, and contentment with the life they are leading. Expressive writing may also encourage goal setting and a desire for a purpose driven life. When people know how they are feeling and what is going on emotionally, they know what they want out of life and they have the motivation to go after it.
People who are stuck brooding, depressed, anxious, and with a lack of understanding of their emotional upheaval, they cannot focus on their future and desires. It is a known fact, that keeping things bottled-up inside interferes with every aspect of life, though no one has been able to explain it; it is just something society and human nature knows (Pennebaker 228). Though expressive writing is an inexpensive approach many people disagree with it being used as a therapy or self-help technique because it is not a cure for mental disorders, it does not always help right away, and not everyone is a natural writer. In the world today, there are no cures for mental disorders such as clinical depression and anxiety. There is only medications and therapy sessions.
The average human being cannot afford long term therapy, so to ween a person off the help of professionals, therapists administer expressive writing assignments so that eventually the patients can help themselves. “…be it biographical, a letter, poetry, and so on. The concept of writing within the context of therapy is not new; therapists have used journal writing for a variety of goals for many years” (Smyth and Helm 229). Even the professionals recognize the benefits of this low cost, self-help method. When individuals begin the writing process it is painful and not always helpful.
This is because they are approaching the uncomfortable. The pain always gets worse before it gets better but when people face certain levels of discomfort, they have a tendency to shy away and quit during the healing process. If the individual truly wants healing, understanding, and freedom from the hold of buried emotions, one must press on and eventually find, “the more you write, the easier it gets” (Keillor 253). It is true, not everyone has a desire to write everything down, but a person does not have to be poetic with words, or a grammar expert to write on a piece of paper. The writer must remember that the written work is for private eyes only. It is for the benefit of the individual. It does not have to be perfect in form or structure or have consistent organization and limited mistakes.
The only thing that matters in the writing is that there is a consistent flow of thought, short or lengthy, and that it holds meaning for the author. Whether because of therapist suggestion or personal choice, expressive writing can serve many beneficial purposes for any individual. From the mental to the emotional, written word creates organization and meaning for the confusing, painful, and stressful. Expressive writing does not require great effort or expense to be helpful, and the individual does not need incredible skill to create something powerful for themselves. Transparency, honesty, truth and allowing oneself to be vulnerable and helpless gives expressive writing the power to be helpful. Expressive writing can be reflective, refreshing, and renewing. One must allow the heart out onto a page, the soul into words, the spirit into every stroke of the pen—one must write.
- Didion, Joan. ‘On Keeping a Notebook.’ The Little Norton Reader: 50 Essays from the First 50 Years, compiled by Melissa A. Goldthwaite, W.W. Norton and Company, 2017, pp. 106- 13.
- Originally published in Holiday, 1966. “Expressive Writing for Mental Health.” Harvard Mental Health Letter, vol. 28, no. 1, July 2011, pp. 6. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=61216596&site=ehost-live.
- Keillor, Garrison. ‘How to Write a Letter.’ The Little Norton Reader: 50 Essays from the First 50 Years, compiled by Melissa A. Goldthwaite, W.W. Norton and Company, 2017, pp. 250-54.
- Excerpt originally published in We Are Still Married, 1989. Pennebaker, James W. ‘Expressive Writing in Psychological Science.’ Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol.13, no. 2, 2018, pp. 226-229.
- Smyth, Joshua, and Rebecca Helm. “Focused Expressive Writing as Self-Help for Stress and Trauma.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 59, no. 2, Feb. 2003, pp. 227–235. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=9198217&site=ehost-live.
- Wing, Joanna F., Nicola S. Schutte, and Brian Byrne. ‘The Effect of Positive Writing on Emotional Intelligence and Life Satisfaction.’ Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 62, no. 10, 2006, pp. 1291-1302.