The mental health benefits of expressive writing

The mental health benefits of expressive writing

September 26, 2019

The mental health benefits of expressive writing

Mental Health

Writing helps us learn, process and in some cases, it can be highly therapeutic as it benefits our physical and psychological health. Expressive writing can be extremely helpful for those in recovery from a mental health disorder, addiction, or co-occurring conditions as it enables a person to be able to express their thoughts creatively and freely. Further, it allows a person to process their thoughts and experiences. Expressive writing has been in use as a therapeutic medium for at least the past 20 years.

How does it work?

This initial idea of expressive writing was developed by Dr. James Pennebaker, chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s. Pennebaker’s theory was essentially based on the idea that actively inhibiting thoughts and feelings about traumatic events required effort which was a cumulative stressor on the body and intensified physiological activity, obsessive thinking, and increased the duration through which the disease remained active.

He created a basic writing paradigm that asked participants to write for 15 minutes each day for four consecutive days. The writing would focus on the most traumatic or upsetting experiences of their lives. As a result, participants experienced significant benefits in both the objectively assessed and self-reported physical health four months later. This translated into lesser visits to the healthcare center and fewer days of illness.

The main idea was to focus on writing about feelings rather than events, memories, objects, or people. While expressive writing may sometimes include story-like components such as a beginning, middle, and an end, it will more often be turbulent and unpredictable. Expressive writing is based less on writing about what has happened and more about how someone feels about what has happened.

How does it help?

Expressive writing has the ability to help people with certain physical problems such as asthma or even those with disturbed sleeping patterns, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or a history of trauma. While expressive writing can be beneficial in the long run for many people it may not work for everyone. Specifically, it is less beneficial for adult survivors of childhood abuse and some Vietnam veterans.

Despite this, expressive writing will often create positive results, both physical and psychological, irrespective of the fact that people may often feel upset or distressed during the time in which they are writing about their traumatic event. This increase in distress, negative mood, and physical symptoms, however, is both temporary and lasts for a short period. At the same time, these writings are normally more personal, meaningful, and emotional producing lasting positive results.


Expressive writing can cause initial short-term negative reactions. However, for people who continuously engage in expressive writing, there will be long-term positive physical, emotional, and social benefits. Long-term health benefits of expressive writing include:

  • Fewer stress-related doctor visits
  • Improved immunity to disease
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved liver and lung function
  • Better mood
  • Feelings of greater psychological wellbeing
  • Fewer symptoms of avoidance

Other social and behavioral improvements include:

  • Lower absenteeism from work
  • Quicker re-employment after not having a job
  • Improved memory
  • Enhanced performance in sports
  • Higher grades
  • Differences in social and linguistic behavior

Expressive writing is meant to counteract the stress of inhibiting emotions. It does so by acknowledging overwhelming emotions in order to reduce the physiological toll they take and thus lowering stress.

Recovering from mental illnesses

This form of writing can be useful when dealing with patients who have experienced trauma during their treatment. However, if it doesn’t help much, professional intervention might be considered to help a patient.

If you or a loved one is battling mental health disorders and is looking for a licensed mental health treatment center, get in touch with the Invictus Health Group. Call our 24/7 helpline 866-548-0190 and speak to a member of our team. You can also chat online to a representative for more information on mental health services.

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