Sit down and pick up a pen and paper (or get out your laptop). I want you to write your deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience you can recall or any emotional experience that you consider to have had a huge effect on your life. Choose an experience that you can remember in full detail. Be explicit about how you felt about it and how you feel about it now, how it’s affected you, your relationships, and your life. Describe the cause and effect of the trauma, the moments leading up to it and after it—write a story when applicable. Once you start writing, don’t stop. Ignore grammar and punctuation if that’s easier. Just write for fifteen minutes without stopping.
Do this exercise and, according to James Pennebaker, the grandfather of expressive writing therapy, you will experience a realignment of the psychological relationship you have with your trauma or past experiences. By writing about a traumatic memory from your past, it becomes more ordered and legible. If there’s any sense to be made, you now have the tools to begin making it. Pennebaker says that the “development of a coherent narrative helps to reorganize and structure traumatic memories, resulting in more adaptive internal schemas.”
Does it work?
The Evidence for Writing Therapy
Before we talk about the benefits of writing therapy, let’s establish the evidence. The most surprising part about expressive writing therapy is that it isn’t based on New Age feel good speculation. It’s been in official use since the 1980s with a large trove of research supporting its effects.
On a cognitive note, expressive writing has been shown to increase both the working memory (how we hold information in our minds to connect and use) and academic performance of college students.12
In a study of patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, those in the two groups who were instructed to practice writing therapy about stressful experiences exhibited better lung function and more diminished disease activity, respectively, at a four-month follow-up than those who wrote about neutral experiences.3
People with clinical depression who wrote for 20 minutes about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding a stressful or traumatic experience for three days in a row experienced an improvement in depression scores.4 At the four week followup, the improvements persisted.
Whether it’s music students anxious about a performance, students worried about tests, or anxiety in general, expressive writing therapy is an effective antidote to anxiety.567
PTSD patients who wrote about their trauma showed lower cortisol levels and improved mood—so both objective and subjective improvements—compared to the control group.8
Among fibromyalgia patients, those who engaged in expressive writing therapy about a traumatic experience saw improvements in pain levels, fatigue, and overall well-being compared to the control group.9
Patients with irritable bowel syndrome who were assigned expressive writing exercises about their condition showed a decrease in symptom severity and an enhanced sense of control over their condition at one and three months after the beginning of the experiment when compared to the control group.10
Finally, research in cancer patients has shown benefits in the areas of “satisfaction with emotional support,” fewer physical symptoms, fewer medical visits related to cancer concerns, and an improved quality of life. In the last instance, a single writing session was enough to make a substantive difference for more than half of writing participants even three weeks later.11121314
Now, I have to say that not all evidence is unequivocal. Some of the other trials have found insignificant or nonexistent effects, but in general writing therapy is helpful across a broad spectrum of conditions.
The Benefits of Expressive Writing Therapy
Writing therapy puts words to feelings. Feelings are hard to grapple with until we verbalize them. In order for an emotional response to crystallize into thoughts, it needs linguistic representation. That’s the point of writing therapy (or one of them anyway). Words act as a medium for expression and catalyst for clarity—or at least illumination. Chaotic, turbulent feelings and emotions become more ordered and manageable. In writing our experience, in discussing the facts, the chronology, the logistics, and down on into the depths of feeling, we move beyond the surface. We delve into the heart of the beast and come out changed.
Writing therapy can reveal things you didn’t “know.” By putting words to feelings and erecting narrative boundaries around your emotions, you can discover causes and effects of which you had no conscious awareness. Writing tends to reveal these kinds of things. The writing session is almost alive.
Writing therapy is adaptogenic. The reason why writing therapy can help with so many different conditions—cancer, fibromyalgia, arthritis, asthma, PTSD, etc—is because it is adaptogenic rather than specific. If the trauma is the thing causing the stress response, which in turn is the thing worsening the physical symptoms, writing therapy directed at the trauma gets at the root.
Writing therapy reveals the power of the mind and the pervasiveness of trauma. Trauma isn’t just about “being sad” or “depressed” or “having PTSD.” If it’s not addressed, trauma can affect almost every aspect of our health and well-being. It can manifest as all sorts of conditions. By some definitions, this might be “psychosomatic.” But that’s a very real condition that feels real and manifests as a physical phenomenon.
Writing is often easier than talking to someone else. Not everyone has someone they feel comfortable talking to about their problems. Not everyone has access to a group therapy setting, or even friends close enough to share personal and sensitive topics.Writing offers a slower, more solitary method of reflection. Unlike live conversations, we’re less concerned with another person’s reaction. We listen perhaps more intently to our own voices and catch glimpses of subtler stirrings. We own our words in a more definitive way.
Writing therapy serves a similar role as dreams do. Dreams happen to us. We find ourselves thrust into a narrative, whisked along a storyline that can be chaotic but also make a strange kind of sense in the moment. When we wake up, we remember bits and pieces. We may even try to write our dream down before we forget everything. It’s common to try to make sense of the dream. What did it all mean? Dreams feel profound and important, but we rarely take anything concrete away from them.
My theory is that our subconscious works through issues using dreams. They’re scattershot story therapy sessions operating under the hood. You never really get closure on a dream. They don’t end neatly or come with explanations. They just happen and you have to trust that they happened for a reason.
Writing therapy is similar, but more intentional and effective. Instead of subjecting yourself to a chaotic narrative in the dreamscape, you write about a powerful emotional memory in your life, and in doing so stuff happens underneath the hood. You get better. Problems resolve, or start heading in that direction. You don’t quite know why. You don’t actively “work through” your issue—you just relive it and write about it in excruciating detail, and things become more clear.
Why Does It Work?
Researchers, never content with something “just working,” have explored why writing therapy works. Is it a desensitization process of reliving an experience? Is it relieving the stress of previously “inhibited emotions”? The most substantial factor is the cognitive process of taking apart our experience and configuring it for the story we tell. Having given language and narrative boundaries to traumatic experiences, you contain their potency. The chronic stress they’ve induced—and the corresponding physiological impact like weakened immune function, systemic inflammation, hormonal imbalance, and impaired cardiovascular function—diminishes.
Telling your story can help you discover your passion, navigate complicated patches, and define your legacy. You can tread water for years or envision a new, bolder path. You can delve into recesses of yourself you might not consider appropriate for public display and explore, then transcend, the regrets of the past.
The Value of Writing as Therapy
For my money, the ultimate value of writing as therapy is that anyone can do it, anywhere, anytime. It’s free, it’s cheap—all it takes is 15 minutes of effort and honesty. And it’s self driven. You don’t need to test out a dozen psychiatrists at $300 an hour to listen to your problems or “guide” your answers to questions or help you probe their meaning. The writing is the therapy itself and the meaning unfolds as you engage in it. The writing process is the therapist. If you can write, you can do writing therapy.
Thanks for reading today. Share your thoughts on writing and what place it has in your life. If you feel inclined, try the writing therapy prompt at the start of this article. Did it make a difference to you?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.