Over the past few lessons, we’ve reviewed ways to improve our self-talk, either through self-distancing or affect labeling. In today’s lesson, we’ll be covering our last method: expressive writing, less formally known as journaling.
In 1986, James Pennebaker conducted the first psychological review of expressive writing. He found that participants writing about their thoughts reported significant physical improvements. Since then, research has shown myriad mental benefits:
• improved working memory
• improved mood
• increased psychological well-being
• reduced stress
• anxiety management
In one meta-analysis, the authors reported that the effects of expressive writing are equal to other forms of psychological interventions.
Psychologists believe that journaling is so effective because it allows us to form a coherent narrative about our life. That is, instead of thoughts simply having a beginning and an end, we are able to understand how certain events shaped our lives.
Expressive writing means taking an objective look at our memories in the hopes that we can gain a better perspective on how they affect us. When we fail to examine our history, we are far more likely to hold onto negative beliefs. Journaling is the perfect space for this process. It provides a safe, nonjudgmental environment where writing is the only priority.
As James Pennebaker puts it, “Writing about an emotionally charged subject or an unresolved trauma helps you put the event into perspective and gives some structure … to those anxious feelings, which ultimately helps you get through it.”
So, how do you practice expressive writing?
Here are two different options. The first is far more formal. It’s also the technique that Pennebaker used in his initial experiments. The second is more relaxed, what we typically think of as journaling.
Option One: For the next four days, write about a traumatic experience. In your writing, you should focus on exploring your deepest thoughts and emotions. You can tie what you write to your relationships with others: parents, friends, partners, or relatives. You may also write about how the event relates to your future and present selves—who you’d like to be and who you are now. If you’d like, you can write about different experiences each day or about a single experience all four days.
Plan to write for 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. The only rule is that you write for the entire time.
Option Two: If you’re not focused on overcoming a stressful event or don’t feel comfortable doing so, you should follow the advice of Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. She recommends merely writing about, “anything and everything that crosses your mind.” That’s it—clean and simple.
I’ve chosen expressive writing as the last tool because depending on the exercise you choose, you may need several days to complete it.
Our ultimate goal with journaling is the ability to forego writing our thoughts and feelings. Instead, we should be able to work through our emotions in our mind while remaining objective about the situation. This takes time and practice, but it’s a great ideal to work toward.
Tomorrow, we’ll review everything we’ve learned in this course.
Thanks for reading!
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