James W Pennebaker
Professor — Ph.D., University of Texas at AustinExecutive Director of Project 2021, Regents Centennial Professor
Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice
Writing about emotional upheavals in our lives can improve physical and mental health. Although the scientific research surrounding the value of expressive writing is still in the early phases, there are some approaches to writing that have been found to be helpful. Keep in mind that there are probably a thousand ways to write that may be beneficial to you. Think of these as rough guidelines rather than Truth. Indeed, in your own writing, experiment on your own and see what works best.
Getting Ready to Write:
Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed. Ideally, pick a time at the end of your workday or before you go to bed.
Promise yourself that you will write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least 3 or 4 consecutive days.
Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written.
You can write longhand or you can type on a computer. If you are unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder.
You can write about the same thing on all 3-4 days of writing or you can write about something different each day. It is entirely up to you.
What to Write About:
Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much
Something that you are dreaming about
Something that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way
Something that you have been avoiding for days, weeks, or years
In our research, we generally give people the following instructions for writing:
Over the next four days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?
Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.
Warning: Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.
What to do with your Writing Samples:
The writing is for you and for you only. Their purpose is for you to be completely honest with yourself. When writing, secretly plan to get rid of your writing when you are finished. Whether you keep it or save it is really up to you.
Some people keep their samples and edit them. That is, they gradually change their writing from day to day. Others simply keep them and return to them over and over again to see how they have changed.
Here are some other options:
Burn them. Erase them. Shred them. Flush them. Tear them into little pieces and toss them into the ocean or let the wind take them away. Eat them (not recommended).
Some References for Writing, Journalling, or Diaries:
A video of the original writing method can be seen by clicking here.
There are some outstanding books by people who have an intuitive and practical approach to writing. Each author approaches journalling or diary writing in very different ways. Check the various books out and see what works best for you.
Adams, Kathleen (1998). The Way of the Journal : A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing. Sidron Press.
Baldwin, Christina (1992). One to One : Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing. Evans Publisher
DeSalvo, Louise A. (2000). Writing As a Way of Healing : How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Beacon Press.
Fox, John (1997). Poetic Medicine : The Healing Art of Poem-Making. Tarcher Press
Goldberg, Natalie and Guest, Judith (1986). Writing Down the Bones : Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala Press.
Jacobs, Beth (2005). Writing for Emotional Balance, New Harbinger Publishers.
Pennebaker, James W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. NY: Guilford Press.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words that Heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor.
Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. Denver, CO: Center for Journal Therapy.
Rainer, Tristine (1979). The New Diary : How to Use a Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity. Tarcher
Discussions about: abuse, anxiety, developmental and cognitive disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, mood disorders, sexual disorders, psychotic disorders, addictions, general health, therapy, and more.
(Do not send or mail. This is for your benefit only!)
1. This is What Happened
a. Tell the “Good, Bad, and the Ugly”.
b. Do not censor your words, language, punctuation, etc. Don’t go back and correct anything. Just write!
c. Do not think about how other people might criticize what you are saying – this is your opportunity to tell your experience.
d. Take all the time you need to write how you understand the situations that happened. You may want to start a separate page for each of the four sections of this letter.
2. These Are MY Feelings About What Happened
a. The feelings that I felt when it was happening.
i. How my body felt, for example: nausea, tension in shoulders, adrenaline rush, cold inside, shaking, etc.
ii. The emotions that I felt, for example: anger, fear, confusion, powerlessness, etc.
b. This is how I feel now when I think about what happened.
c. These are my feelings when I think about what happened to me, happening to someone I love.
3. This is How the Events that Happened Have Affected My Life
a. My self-esteem
b. My choices
c. My relationships
d. My health – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual
4. This is What I Ask Now
a. My fantasy or ideal – What I would ask from you, if you could be the kind of person I have wanted you to be. What would I have liked you to do or not do? What did I need or want that you didn’t give?
b. My reality – Given who I know you to be, what:
i. New boundaries are safe for me? What can I do to have safety and peace?
ii. New behaviors can I believe are possible? For you, for me?
If You Get Stuck:
1. Write you last sentence again.
2. Write down whatever thoughts or questions you have, for example: What good is this going to do? What if I don’t remember everything?
3. Pray for help and strength.
Set Appropriate Boundaries
1. Decide on a time limit that feels right for you on this particular day; for example, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour.
2. If you like, set an alarm clock or stove timer so you don’t need to think about the time boundaries.
3. Ask your partner/kids/housemate to take messages for you from phone calls or visitors, or turn your phone off, so you won’t be interrupted while you do your healing work.
4. If you have a regular healing time – let trusted friends know you are not available during your writing/meditation/healing sessions.
1. Find a comfortable space for yourself. Sit in a favorite chair, enjoy some herbal tea, a scented candle, relaxing music, etc.
2. Wrap yourself in a favorite blanket, hug a stuffed toy, or pet your cat/dog while you write.
After Doing Healing Work
1. Give yourself permission to not think about healing work until your next writing/healing work time.
2. Do something enjoyable/fun/fulfilling to you, for example: go for a walk, phone a friend, do a hobby.
Nadine Duckworth, M.Ed. Registered Provisional Psychologist