Be kind, rewind.

Snowboarder and winter landscape.

Why Writing is Good for You

How I stumbled upon the healing potential of expressive writing

Have you ever wished you could put your life on playback? Pause and rewind to the happiest moments and live them all over again?

In late 2012, I wanted nothing more than to rewind back to the beginning of the year. That was when I discovered that I could indeed pause and rewind, and even make edits by writing about the events that proceeded my pause-and-rewind state of mind.

I spent 2012 in the States, where I hopelessly and desperately fell in love. It was the all-scorching kind of love, so often described in romantic novels, when you religiously believe that “happily ever after” was made for you two.

And it was impossible not to fall in love. He was six feet four inches tall, an athletic Navy contractor with piercing brown eyes and an intelligent, outgoing personality. Even how we met qualifies as a fairy-tale intro – on a chairlift, while snowboarding at one of northern Idaho’s most spectacular ski resorts. We were both about to make another run down the hill, so I suggested a race. Of course, he was faster than me and I completely lost sight of him by the time I reached the bottom of the hill. I felt a ping of disappointment when I realized I might never see him again, and tried to shake off the reverie of a handsome tall gentleman. But just as I was about to set out back home, I saw him. There he was, leisurely leaning over the ski rack, his snowboard resting at his side.

That was the beginning of the nine months of hand-holding and starring into each other’s faces. Nine perfectly happy and perfectly cheesy months.

At the end of 2012 I had to return back to my home country. I wasn’t just heartbroken; I was going through the loss of my “happily ever after.”

After I left the States, I started to write about us, about how we met and how it could go differently, had I stayed. I took to my laptop the pain of my heart, every word bleeding with memories of happier days. On the computer screen, I was rewinding and playing back those happy days, pausing and rewinding again. The more I wrote, the easier it felt.

Positive effect of expressive writing

J. Pennebaker pioneered the research of expressive writing as a therapy, revealing that writing about our deepest emotions has multiple positive physiological and psychological effects. Among the long-term health outcomes of writing therapy researchers cite an improved immune system, reduced blood pressure, better lung function and better sleep. After undergoing writing therapy, argue H. Rosenberg, A. Stanton and S. Danoff-Burg, cancer patients have better physical health and experience less pain, and HIV patients, according to K. Petrie, have better immune responses.

The psychological benefits of expressive writing are also stunning. J. Pennebaker reports positive changes in mood and affections, C. Park and C. Blumberg found that expressive writing positively affects overall psychological well-being and S. Lepore showed that writing therapy can decrease depression symptoms. J. Pennebaker and A. Graybeal revealed that expressive writing can also alter the lingual and behavioral patterns, and hence, lead to healthier social life.

So how do all those wonderful changes happen?

How expressive writing works

Researches haven’t produced a single explanation for how exactly expressive writing improves our health. Instead, they suggest that a combination of various interior psychological processes contribute to the positive changes observed after undergoing writing therapy.

I’m most satisfied with the explanation K. Harber and J. Pennebaker give. They name cognitive processing as the mechanism behind the positive impact of expressive writing. When we write out our deepest feelings, we transfer our emotions into words, which helps us create logical connections between the traumatic events and how we feel about them. As a result, we get a better-organized picture of what happened, and this makes it easier to come up with a new adaptive behavior.

Cognitive processing also explains why expressive writing improves social functioning. When our emotions and feelings are better organized, we express ourselves more clearly, making it easier for others to understand us. And, of course, better understanding brings better relationships.

Another psychological mechanism underlying the process of creative writing, according to E. Foa and B. Rothbaum, is a prolonged exposure to our traumatic experiences. While writing, we face again the events that caused the emotional breakdown. This extended exposure to the traumatizing events causes the negative emotions to fade and after a while, we no longer feel the acute pain that was there before.

J. Pennebaker also mentions that lessening the inhibition of negative thoughts ultimately leads to improvement of physical health. Inhibition consumes a lot of energy, and after we stop suppressing negative emotions and confront them in our writing, we lower the stress on our body and better our biological parameters.

Self-help with expressive writing

Expressive writing is not only beneficial as an addition to psychotherapy sessions, it can be used as a self-help tool because it is easy and cheap to administer in the home setting. Distance expressive writing has gained popularity thanks to the Internet, and the comfort and anonymity of writing from home.

Based on the literature about writing therapy, here’s what you need to consider if you want to improve your emotional and physical health with the help of expressive writing:

  1. Write regularly, at least four times a week for 20 minutes.
  2. Don’t write before going to bed.
  3. State facts, as well as express emotions.
  4. Write freely without worrying about the grammar and spelling.
  5. Share and discuss your expressive writing with your significant other.
  6. Think of a topic before you start to write.
Header image by the author.

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