Expressive Writing

Expressive Writing is a form of writing therapy developed to help put your feelings and experiences into words.

“That felt quite cathartic”

“Like a weight off my shoulders”

“It really helped me to understand some of the things that were troubling me”

These are just some of the things people have said after writing their cardiac arrest story as either a post in the group or as an entry on our blog.

When they were writing they probably didn’t realise that writing can be a real help in their recovery and in fact, a particular form of it is known as a successful therapy.

What is it?

Expressive Writing is a form of writing therapy developed primarily by American Psychologist James W. Pennebaker in the late 1980s.

It is essentially very simple:

Expressing yourself through writing

It is the process of putting your thoughts, feelings and experiences into words. It is what you are doing when you write in a journal or a diary, and other similar types of writing. It can be done with a pen, a keyboard or even a typewriter.

Does it work?

Pennebaker ran a study where the participants were instructed to write about personal trauma, expressing their deepest feelings and emotions. They did this in 15-minute sessions for 4 consecutive days. 

Many found it an upsetting and unsettling experience but also valuable and meaningful. 

The study concluded that those writing about their trauma subsequently visited doctors far fewer times compared to a control group who did similar sessions but wrote about neutral subjects.

Over 200 similar studies have been since done and they have not only validated the original results but also shown the technique has the potential to boost the immune system.

Dr Pennebaker talks briefly about his work here


If you wish to give Expressive Writing a go please read these general instructions before you begin.

1. Time: Write a minimum of 15 minutes per day for 4 consecutive days.

2. Topic: What you choose to write about should be extremely personal and important to you, typically this would be about your SCA.

3. Write continuously: Do not worry about punctuation, spelling, and grammar and don’t critique it. If you run out of things to say, draw a line or repeat what you have already written. Keep pen on paper.

4. Write only for yourself: You may plan to destroy or hide what you are writing. Do not censor what you write or turn this exercise into a letter. This is for your eyes only.

5. Observe the Flip-out Rule: If you get into the writing, and you feel that you cannot write because it will push you over the edge, STOP writing!

6. Expect a reaction: Many people briefly feel a bit saddened or down after expressive writing, especially on the first day or so. Usually this feeling goes away completely in an hour or two.

Your Results

Give yourself some time after writing to reflect on what you have written and to be compassionate with yourself. If you are worried about someone else seeing what you wrote, put your writing in a safe place, or simply tear it up or shred it. But if you are not concerned that someone may read what you wrote, you may want to keep your writing, so you can come back to it after you have completed the four-day exercise.

A week or two after you have completed the four days of expressive writing, you may want to reflect on what you notice in your life, how you feel, and how you behave.

Further Help

Psychologist Erick Godsey has produced a free ebook on Expressive Writing which goes into detail a little more and you can get it here free.

More information about the benefits of the technique can be found at…

Dr Pennebaker also has a number of books on the subject available which are rated 5 stars…

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