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While terms such as “expressive writing,” “journalling,” “writing therapy,” and “therapeutic writing” are often used inter-changeably, I have chosen to use the term “Expressive Therapeutic Writing”. For me, Expressive Therapeutic Writing involves using the written word, in any form, to relieve the negative symptoms that you are experiencing. This could mean pouring your feelings into poetry, writing short stories with an uncanny resemblance to your life, or recording your thoughts and feelings in a journal. In my opinion, Expressive Therapeutic Writing is much like Depression: it looks and acts differently for everyone.
Many people who write on this topic credit James Pennebaker for pioneering the study of Expressive Therapeutic Writing. He stated that "when people transform their feelings and thoughts about personally upsetting experiences into language, their physical and mental health often improves" (source). In other words, when you can put into words, or onto paper, whatever it is that is troubling you, you will usually experience a relief from symptoms.
So, how does this work? Well, like most scientific inquiries, there is no conclusive answer. While researchers don’t know exactly why it helps, they do know that it is likely a combination of many different theories and factors. In my experience, and as far as science can tell, putting confusing or troubling thoughts into words (and onto paper) can help you make sense of a situation, identify what might be causing you distress, and define what you need and want to find relief (source).
For example, I often find myself feeling troubled without really knowing why. It is almost always helpful for me to write down my thoughts, step away, and then re-visit what I have written to try and find out what is troubling me. I might not be able to figure it all out right away, but writing it all down usually gets me on the right track. I also find that writing is very cathartic. While most research debates this, I know that it is a relief for me to take all the negative shit out of my head and put into onto paper. It’s almost like I’m taking out the trash, only mentally.
Long story short, the research doesn’t have much to say about why writing has been such an outlet for me. It does, however, reassure me that the benefits that I experience from writing are real. They aren’t imagined, and they don’t live in my head.
The beauty of Expressive Therapeutic Writing is that it doesn’t need to make sense. There doesn’t need to be theories and explanations behind it. It works for me, and that’s enough. I hope it can work for you too!
Here are some other great resources on the topic of Expressive Therapeutic Writing:
- Expressive Writing: Connections to Physical and Mental Health (James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung)
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