If you need a boost to get you writing, Dr. James Pennebaker is just the one to give it to you. Read on...
Two decades ago, James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., demonstrated that college students who wrote expressively about traumatic experiences subsequently visited the doctor for illness nearly half as often as the control group. This groundbreaking research led to further studies with results indicating that expressive writing can help enhance immune function, lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce symptoms in asthma and arthritis sufferers, and lessen sleep disturbance in patients with metastatic cancers. Psychological benefits such as lowered anxiety, less rumination and fewer depressive symptoms have also been demonstrated.
"Since the mid-1980's an increasing number of studies have focused on the value of expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people's sleep habits, work efficiency and how they connect with others."
- Dr. James W. Pennebaker, from his book, Writing to Heal.
Since his pioneering study, Dr. Pennebaker has devoted himself to understanding the mysteries of emotional writing. And using scientific research, he has constructed a writing program that has changed people's lives. With Dr. Pennebaker's permission, the Survivor's Review will share with our readers some of his writing guidelines for those getting started. For more detail as well as additional prompts, suggestions and exercises, read Dr. Pennebaker's book: Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval.
Getting Ready to Write
What to Write
Start with an emotional upheaval that is bothering you, but if you find yourself moving to another topic, go with it. As long as other topics are emotionally important, follow them. Also, if you find yourself getting bored with your writing, switch topics. Trust where your writing takes you.
How Often to Write
Dr. Pennebaker requests that you commit to writing for a minimum of twenty minutes each day for four consecutive days. You may write longer than twenty minutes or continue beyond four days, should you wish, but not less.
When to Write
Establishing a regular writing ritual is important. This includes writing the same time every day if possible. Although he does not suggest a particular time of day, Dr. Pennebaker does acknowledge that he has had the most success with people writing at the end of their workday. Regardless of when you choose to write, however, it is most important that you have some free time to allow your mind to reflect upon what you have written.
The other "when" to consider is the time elapsed since the trauma(s) about which you write. According to Dr. Pennebaker, if you have faced a massive traumatic experience in your life within the last two to three weeks, it may be too soon to deal with some of the deeper emotions that the trauma has awakened.
With ongoing and past traumas, writing is particularly recommended if you find yourself thinking, worrying or dreaming about the event frequently. Expressive writing can also help if you find that this upheaval is adversely affecting your daily life in some way.
Where to Write
"Wherever you go to write should be a place that provides you with a sense of comfort and security," Dr. Pennebaker advises. While some go to a library, religious establishment, coffee house or park, most prefer to write at home. If so, consider setting up your space little differently than usual to help create ritual. For example, you might light a candle or bring pictures or objects of significance into your writing area.
In his book, Writing to Heal, Dr. Pennebaker expands on a short list of general instructions drawn from dozens of successful writing studies. They include:
- Write for a minimum of twenty minutes a day.
- Write about the same event on all four days or write about different events each day.
- Write continuously without worrying about grammar, spelling or editing.
- Write only for yourself. Be completely open with yourself to get the full benefit of expressive writing.
Please note: Dr. Pennebaker does caution us at a few points. He is quick to acknowledge that people often feel sad or even weepy immediately after writing about traumatic topics. These effects are usually short term. In the long term, studies show that people who engage in expressive writing generally report feeling happier and less negative than before the writing.
And, although Dr. Pennebaker has not had anyone "flip out," i.e. scream or ranting uncontrollably during or after writing, he makes a point of cautioning potential writers with the "FLIP OUT RULE."
"If you feel that your writing about a particular topic is too much for you to handle, then do not write about it. If you know that you aren't ready to address a particularly painful topic, write about something else. When you are ready, then tackle it. If you feel that you will flip out by writing, don't write."
Four Days of Writing
With each session, Dr. Pennebaker provides writing instructions and asks a series of questions encouraging us to dig deeper and make connections between traumatic events and our current lives. The following excerpt is taken from his Day 2 Writing Instructions:
"It is important to realize that a trauma or emotional upheaval often may influence every aspect of your life, from your relationships with friends and family, to how you view yourself and others view you, to your work and even how you think about your past."
Dr. Pennebaker speaks to us from volumes of experience and research. His consistent message to us is invaluable: Acknowledge your deepest emotions openly. Construct a coherent story. Find your own voice.
James W. Pennebaker is Bush Professor of Liberal Arts and the Departmental Chair in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1977. He has been on the faculty at the University of Virginia, Southern Methodist University, and, since 1997, The University of Texas. He and his students are exploring the links between traumatic experiences, expressive writing, natural language use, and physical and mental health. His studies find that physical health and work performance can improve by simple writing and/or talking exercises. His most recent research focuses on the nature of language and emotion in the real world. The words people use serve as powerful reflections of their personality and social worlds. Author or editor of 8 books and over 200 articles, Dr. Pennebaker has received numerous awards and honors. Access his website at: http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/HomePage/Faculty/Pennebaker/home2000/JWPhome.htm.