You might imagine Expressive Writing as journaling on steroids! It’s a specific
therapeutic practice created by the psychologist James Pennebaker that many people
have found helpful for gaining insight and processing trauma. Since the 1980’s there
have been over one thousand (!) clinical studies demonstrating its effectiveness (the studies included everything from lessening emotional distress and PTSD symptoms to lessening pain experienced from fibromyalgia)!
Here's a short How To list to get you started:
Set Aside Time:
● Find a comfortable, quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.
● Spend 15 to 20 minutes on four different writing sessions.
Choose a Topic:
● Select a specific event or experience that has affected you emotionally.
● It could be something positive or negative, but it should have had a significant
impact on you.
● Though this has not be studied as thoroughly, you could also choose a theme (e.g.
“everything about my propensity to perfectionism”) and then explore a specific
incident where this theme showed up (e.g. “the time I stayed up all night to
rewrite that paper six times”).
Write Freely and Honestly:
● Start writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings regarding the chosen
● You can write free-hand or on a computer. Studies show it doesn’t matter. Do
what feels most natural to you.
● Write continuously without worrying about grammar, spelling, or structure.
● Be as honest and open as possible. There's no need to censor yourself.
● If you run out of things to “say,” just rewrite sentences you’ve already written until
something new comes.
Explore Emotions and Reactions:
● Describe what you felt during the event, how it affected you, and any emotions
● Explore your reactions, thoughts, and feelings after the event.
● Be as honest as possible (remember nobody will see this but you!).
Don't Focus on Making Sense or Finding Solutions:
● This is VERY important: The goal is not to rationalize or find solutions but to
express yourself authentically.
● It's about the process of getting your thoughts and emotions out, rather than
achieving a specific outcome.
● Don’t judge anything you’ve written – everything belongs!
Destroy the writing or keep it safe from other’s eyes:
● Most people will want to shred (or set fire to!?) their entry after each session. But if
you want to access it at the end of the four sessions, put it in a place where
nobody else can access it.
Repeat the Writing Exercise:
● You can either do this writing exercise on consecutive days for four days or you
can choose a different rhythm (e.g. every Saturday morning for four weeks or
every other day for 8 days).
● Each day, try to delve deeper into your emotions or explore different aspects of
● It is very important to stick with the same event each writing session.
Reflect on the Writing:
● After completing the four days of writing, take some time to reflect on your
experiences during the writing process.
● Notice any changes in your emotions, thoughts, or perspectives on the event (e.g.
do you notice something that you previously hadn’t. Like, “Wow, that event was so
scary, and now in hindsight, I notice how I thought I was somehow to blame, but I
now realize it wasn’t my fault.”). If you’re seeing a therapist these insights might
be something you want to explore with them.
● “Flip Out Rule”: To start, don’t pick the very most traumatic event of your life
(or one that you feel like you couldn’t ‘look at’ without flipping out!). Start with
something hard, but not so hard.
● Carry On! Try to be consistent with the writing exercise. It might be tempting to
stop after one or two sessions (who wants to wallow in hard past experiences!?),
but know that the studies show persevering through four sessions produces the
● Judge not! Whatever arises, see if you can consider the thoughts, emotions,
‘parts’ that are activated with curious compassion. And if you find it hard to be
compassionate, just notice that!
● Pivot! If you find you get stuck, consider incorporating some of these questions
from somatic trauma therapy:
➔ “What happened next?”
➔ “Who was there to help?”
➔ “When did you know you were safe?”
Pennebaker's research indicates that this form of expressive writing works. That is, it
can help folks process hard emotions, increase self-understanding, and bring about
better mental and even physical health (one study showed that immunity markers
increased after expressive writing). All that said, the exercise comes with the caveat
that many folks feel sad or upset right after writing (you’re digging into trauma, after all).
This usually dissipates within an hour or two and is especially acute only after the first
session, but it’s good to be aware of this. Therefore, make time for the ‘come down’ so
that you’re not rushing off to work or taking care of small children right afterwards.
Perhaps allow time for a walk or a nap or something mellow as a one-hour buffer
between the writing and engaging normal life (especially after the first session).
Very helpful resources:
Pennebaker’s book on Expressive Writing:
An article on the Health Benefits & How To’s of Expressive Writing:
Huberman Lab podcast: