Writing about emotional experiences may help individuals to gain clarity and gain perspective. This practice, known as expressive writing/journaling, has been proven to improve psychological as well as physical wellbeing.
Writing in free-flow style allows one to express their thoughts freely without regard for style, spelling or grammar. Focusing on feelings instead of memories, events or objects.
1. Getting Started
Expressive writing requires honesty. Clients should be prepared to revisit unpleasant memories or emotions as they record them on paper without worrying too much about spelling or grammar rules.
Writing about traumatic experiences often results in reduced emotional distress and negative mood, as well as discovering hidden silver linings or insights into experiences which initially seemed insurmountable.
As part of any effective healing strategy, working with a mental health professional to begin writing can be essential. Therapists can provide prompts and emotional management support during this process; additionally, having support can prevent writing from triggering memories of events or intensifying emotions – potentially protecting against self-defeating “avoidance” responses to trauma.
2. Identifying Your Emotions
Journaling can be used by both therapists and clients as part of therapy sessions or independently to identify emotions and create language to describe them. Start with core feelings at the center and gradually progress outward to more nuanced terms like surprised, amazed or happy.
Words to describe your emotions can also help you pinpoint what’s happening with your body, including physical sensations like stomach churning or sweaty palms. Doing this may even prompt the memory that caused the emotion and help identify its source; this step is key for understanding the source and making healthier choices in the future.
3. Experiencing Emotions
Emotions can be described as the result of subjective, physiological and behavioral responses that arise in response to circumstances and experiences. Everyone experiences emotions in some capacity or another; their intensity may differ significantly depending on individual circumstances.
Most studies of expressive writing adhere to James Pennebaker’s basic writing paradigm, whereby participants write about emotional or traumatic experiences for three to five sessions spread over several days and 15 minutes per session. According to studies utilizing this form of expressive writing, participants visit doctors less frequently and experience increased psychological wellbeing.
Studies have also demonstrated longer-term benefits of expressive writing for trauma survivors and people experiencing various psychological difficulties (Greenberg et al, 1996; Sloan and Range 2004a). These benefits do not depend on the severity of trauma or symptoms being written about;
4. Managing Emotions
Journaling can help you recognize emotional patterns and gain control over negative reactions. For instance, writing about being frustrated about losing your job could reveal that when things don’t go your way you tend to become angry and stressed out.
As it’s essential to emotional processing, creating a safe space is paramount. Avoid public spaces where others could read over your shoulder and seek a peaceful location where you can focus on evaluating and processing thoughts and emotions without distraction.
One of the earliest studies using expressive writing as a therapeutic tool involved asking people to write for four days about an emotionally challenging or distressful event in their life, detailing feelings rather than superficial topics such as weather. People who wrote more honestly were better able to recall details faster.
5. Managing Stress
Journaling can have profound physical health benefits for people living with asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and sleep apnea. Studies have demonstrated its beneficial properties to improve lung functioning and lower blood pressure while simultaneously strengthening immunity systems.
Researchers have also discovered that expressive writing may help relieve stress and anxiety. One study showed that students writing about traumatic events visited their student health center half as frequently compared to control groups who wrote on neutral topics.
Studies have also demonstrated the efficacy of expressive writing to reduce stigma-related stress among gay men, reduce depressive symptoms in chronically stressed caregivers, and ease anticipatory stress for anxious test-takers. According to these studies, emotional disclosure and exposure appear to be key components of what makes expressive writing effective, though not all studies reveal these benefits.