Writing to Awaken: Writing Studies

Scientific studies, books, and articles on the physical and psychological effects of expressive writing

Books

Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval
James W. Pennebaker PhD and Joshua M. Smyth PhD

The simple act of expressing your thoughts and feelings about emotionally challenging experiences on paper is proven to speed your recovery and improve your mental and physical health. This book, written by one of America’s most distinguished research psychologists, guides you through a brief, powerful series of directed writing exercises you can do right in the book. Each will leave you with a stronger sense of value in the world and the ability to accept that that life can be good – even when it is sometimes bad.


Expressive Writing: Words that Heal
James Pennebaker and John Evans

Expressive Writing: Words that Heal provides research results, in layman’s terms, which demonstrate how and when expressive writing can improve health. It explains why writing can often be more helpful than talking when dealing with trauma, and it prepares the reader for their writing experience. The book looks at the most serious issues and helps the reader process them. From the instructions: ”Write about what keeps you awake at night. The emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing.”


Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain
James Pennebaker

Expressing painful emotions is hard–yet it can actually improve our mental and physical health. This lucid, compassionate book has introduced tens of thousands of readers to expressive writing, a simple yet powerful self-help technique grounded in scientific research.


Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives
Louise DeSalvo

In this inspiring book, based on her twenty years of research, highly acclaimed author and teacher Louise DeSalvo reveals the healing power of writing. DeSalvo shows how anyone can use writing as a way to heal the emotional and physical wounds that are an inevitable part of life. Contrary to what most self-help books claim, just writing won’t help you; in fact, there’s abundant evidence that the wrong kind of writing can be damaging.


The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well- Being
Stephen J Lepore and Joshua M Smyth PhD

The Writing Cure presents groundbreaking research on the cognitive, emotional, and biological pathways through which disclosure and expressive writing influences mental and physical health. Although writing has been a popular therapeutic technique for years, only recently have researchers subjected it to rigorous scientific scrutiny and applied it to persons suffering from physical illnesses such as cancer and hypertension.

Article and Studies

For Worriers, Expressive Writing Cools Brain on Stressful Tasks
Hans Schroder
Michigan State University
September 14, 2017

Chronic worriers, take note: Simply writing about your feelings may help you perform an upcoming stressful task more efficiently, finds a Michigan State University study that measured participants’ brain activity.


Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure After Marital Separation
Bourassa KJ1, Allen JJB, Mehl MR, Sbarra DA.
2017 July/Aug

Narrative EW decreased HR and increased HRV after marital separation but did not affect BP. We discuss the possible disconnect between psychology and physiology in response to EW, as well as possible future clinical applications after marital separation.


‘Narrative Expressive Writing’ Might Protect Against Harmful Health Effects of Divorce-related Stress
Wolters Kluwer Health
May 8, 2017

For people going through a divorce, a technique called narrative expressive writing — not just writing about their emotions, but creating a meaningful narrative of their experience — may reduce the harmful cardiovascular effects of stress related to marital separation, reports a new study.


Writing Program with Student Interaction Creates Sense of Purpose for Seniors
June 25, 2015
New York University

A unique program combining a life review writing workshop with conversations between seniors and college students enhances the sense of meaning in life for older adults living independently, finds a new study.


Journal Writing Can Help Mothers Raising a Child with Autism Manage Stress
April 15, 2015
Rondalyn V. Whitney
Clarkson University

Mothers raising a child with autism can manage stress through emotional disclosure in journal writing, an occupational therapy professor reports. These mothers can get burned out because if there is no one there to help them, she said, they can’t get out of the house to participate in any interventions for themselves. She compared the situation to the oxygen mask advisory on airplanes: mothers need to help themselves first before they can help others.


Writing Your Way to Happiness
Tare Parker_Pope
The New York Times
January 19, 2015

The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.


Expressive Writing May Help Breast Cancer Survivors
University of Houston, Science Daily
August 1, 2014

Writing down fears, emotions and the benefits of a cancer diagnosis may improve health outcomes for Asian-American breast cancer survivors, according to a new study.


6 Unexpected Ways Writing Can Transform Your Health
Amanda L. Chan
November 12, 2013

When is the last time you wrote something? Really wrote something, putting pen to paper, and not just typing away an email or report on a computer or smartphone. If it’s been awhile, you might want to consider getting back into the practice — writing (whether it be expressive writing, like you would do in a diary, or keeping a gratitude journal) has been linked with a number of benefits for both body and mind. Read through the list for some ways to write your way to a better you.


Writing Can Help Injuries Heal Faster
Tori Rodriguez
November 1, 2013

Expressive writing is known to help assuage psychological trauma and improve mood. Now studies suggest that such writing, characterized by descriptions of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings, also benefits physical health.


Reading, Writing and Playing Games May Help Aging Brains Stay Healthy
November 25, 2012
Radiological Society of North America

Mental activities like reading and writing can preserve structural integrity in the brains of older people, according to a new study.


Write Yourself Well
John F Evans Ed.D
August 15, 2012

Expressive Writing is the cornerstone of wellness and writing connections. If you are not familiar with expressive writing you may be asking: “Just what is expressive writing and how is that related to my wellness?”


Expressive Writing: Connections to Physical and Mental Health
JW Pennebaker, CK Chung
2011
The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology

In the laboratory, consistent and significant health improvements are found when individuals write or talk about personally upsetting experiences. The effects include both subjective and objective markers of health and well-being.


How Gratitude Helps You Sleep at Night
Linda Wasmer Andrews
November 9, 2011

Grateful thoughts can help you get a great night’s sleep. That’s the message of a recent study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, led by psychology professor Nancy Digdon. In the study, writing in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes every evening helped students worry less at bedtime and sleep longer and better afterward.


Writing About Worries Eases Anxiety and Improves Test Performance
January 13, 2011
University of Chicago

Students can combat test anxiety and improve performance by writing about their worries immediately before the exam begins, according to a new study. Researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their high-stakes test scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear.


Mending Broken Hearts: Effects of Expressive Writing on Mood, Cognitive Processing, Social Adjustment and Health Following a Relationship Breakup
Stephen J. Lepore and Melanie A. Greenberg
October 2010
Psychology and Health

These findings indicate that expressive writing has a wide range of social, emotional, and physical health benefits for individuals coping with stressful events, particularly if they are experiencing ongoing intrusive thoughts and avoidance responses related to the stressor.


Symptoms of Postpartum PTSD and Expressive Writing: A Prospective Study
Fall 2009
Di Blasio, Paola; Ionio, Chiara; Confalonieri, Emanuala
Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Research studies on post-partum PTSD have highlighted that the experience of childbirth can be traumatic in itself because it often involves fear, pain, impotence and non-expressed negative emotions. This study hypothesized that mental processing post-partum emotions, through Pennekaber’s expressive writing (EW) method, can reduce short- and long-term posttraumatic symptoms.


Expressive Writing Appears To Change Thoughts And Feelings About Cancer
February 22, 2008
Georgetown University Medical Center

Expressive writing — writing about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings — may help change the way cancer patients think and feel about their disease. In one of the first studies published in an oncology journal about the benefits of writing therapy, researchers say those who immediately reported changes in thoughts about their illness also reported a better physical quality of life three weeks later.


Implementing an Expressive Writing Study in a Cancer Clinic
Nancy P. Morgan, Kristi D. Graves, Elizabeth A. Poggi, Bruce D. Cheson
February 2008
Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Georgetown University and Georgetown University Hospital, Washington, DC

Twenty years of research indicates expressive writing may enhance physical and psychological well-being. Expressive writing involves writing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings about life experiences. James Pennebaker and his colleagues published the initial investigations of expressive writing and have continued to conduct and publish research in this area.


Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain
June 22, 2007
University of California – Los Angeles

A new brain imaging study by psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense. A second study combines modern neuroscience with ancient Buddhist teachings to provide the first neural evidence for why “mindfulness” — the ability to live in the present moment, without distraction — seems to produce a variety of health benefits.


Does Self-Affirmation, Cognitive Processing, or Discovery of Meaning Explain Cancer-Related Health Benefits of Expressive Writing?
J. David Creswell, Suman Lam, Annette L. Stanton
February 1, 2007
First Published February 1, 2007 Research Article

Although expressive writing has positive effects on health, little is known about the underlying psychological mechanisms for these effects. The present study assessed self-affirmation, cognitive processing, and discovery of meaning as potential mediators of the effects of expressive writing on physical health in early-stage breast cancer survivors.


Benefits of Expressive Writing in Lowering Rumination and Depressive Symptoms
Eva-Maria Gortner, Stephanie S.RudeJames, W.Pennebaker
September 2006
Science Direct

Depression-vulnerable college students (with both elevated prior depressive symptoms and low current depressive symptoms) wrote on 3 consecutive days in either an expressive writing or a control condition. As predicted, participants scoring above the median on the suppression scale of the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (Gross & John, 2003) showed significantly lower depression symptoms at the 6-month assessment when they wrote in the expressive writing versus the control condition.


Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing
Karen A. Baikie, Kay Wilhelm
Advances in Psychiatric Treatment Aug 2005

Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations.


Open Up! Writing About Trauma Reduces Stress, Aids Immunity
American Psychological Association
October 23, 2003

Writing about difficult, even traumatic, experiences appears to be good for health on several levels – raising immunity and other health measures and improving life functioning.


Focused Expressive Writing as Self‐Help for Stress and Trauma
Joshua Smyth, Rebecca Helm
January 2003
Journal of Clinical Psychology

In the therapy process, the process of disclosing about stressful or traumatic events is often considered essential. One such manner is through focused expressive writing (FEW) about stressful or traumatic experiences. FEW is related to improvements in health and well-being, across a wide array of outcomes and participant characteristics. As FEW requires limited involvement of other individuals, is relatively low cost, and portable, it has tremendous potential as self-help.


Gain Without Pain? Expressive Writing and Self-Regulation
LA King
2002
American Psychology Association, PsychNET

The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being.


Writing to Heal
Bridget Murray
Monitor Staff
June 2002

By helping people manage and learn from negative experiences, writing strengthens their immune systems as well as their minds.


Expressive Writing Can Increase Working Memory Capacity
Klein, Kitty and Boal, Adriel
September 2001
American Psychology Association, PsychNET

The effect of emotional disclosure through expressive writing on available working memory (WM) capacity was examined in 2 semester-long experiments. The results are discussed in terms of a model grounded in cognitive and social psychological theory in which expressive writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thinking about a stressful experience, thus freeing WM resources.


Writing Your Feelings: Good Medicine For Chronic Conditions
April 13, 1999
Center For The Advancement Of Health

The simple act of writing down thoughts and feelings about particularly stressful events can help persons with chronic conditions improve their health, according to new research.


Expressive Writing Moderates the Relation Between Intrusive Thoughts and Depressive Symptoms
Lepore, Stephen J.
November 1997
American Psychology Association, PsychNET

The author investigated whether expressive writing enhances emotional adaptation to a stressful event (graduate entrance exams) by reducing event-related intrusive thoughts or by desensitizing people to such thoughts. Participants in the experimental group, who were instructed to write their deepest thoughts and feelings about the exam, exhibited a significant decline in depressive symptoms from 1 month (Time 1) to 3 days (Time 2) before the exam.