Expressive Writing Proven Impacts

Expressive writing—which we call “exploratory writing” at the WCC—is personal writing about whatever is on the writer’s mind at the time they sit down to write.

Expressive writing takes a similar approach to what many writers call “free writing”. The only rule, per se, is that once you begin writing, you continue until the allotted time runs out. The writer does not worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, audience, or final “product. The purpose of this writing is to discover and explore what exists within their interior landscape and which they may not realize is there.

By nature, this kind of writing often produces stunning, rich, emotional, and vibrant writing—that’s why the WCC refers to it as “magnificent”. Not every piece of exploratory writing will knock an audience’s socks off, but it often leads to deep personal insights to be explored further.

Scholarly Research

The study of expressive writing is commonly traced to James W. Pennebaker and is sometimes referred to as “Pennebaker’s paradigm”. His research into the therapeutic potential of writing stemmed from an interest in repressed emotions and how they might contribute to illness.

The results of his first study in 1986 led to a flurry of additional research on the impact of expressive writing across a wide range of populations. Throughout the late 1980s through the early 2000s, scholarship in expressive writing flourished.

In modern research, the expressive writing paradigm has been declared by some scholars to be one of psychology’s most innovative and influential research programs. Today, there is a renewed interested in exploring writing as a support for mental health, as it has a track record of success, potential as a low-cost non-clinical treatment, and is flexible and accessible to support isolated segments of the population.

Proven Benefits

Studies into the potential benefits of expressive writing include both physical and psychological factors.

Physical health benefits

Several medical conditions have been found to improve through expressive writing, ranging from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis to pain management for cancer patients and other populations.

Psychological benefits

Expressive writing has been shown to be a valid non-clinical support with psychological benefits for populations suffering from PTSD, struggling with bereavement, imprisonment, suicidal thoughts, and trauma.

Ongoing research conducted by Ryerson University and the WCC is furthering this field of study.

The Power of Writing Over Other Forms of Artistic Expression

Writing is a powerful tool for several reasons. People often find traumatic life experiences too upsetting to verbalize to others, leading to suppressed thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Failure to disclose these emotions over a long period of time can result in physical and mental health issues.

Writing gives order to thought, turns trauma and suffering into art, and allows individuals to make sense of shock and trauma. Articulating moments of trauma and transition within one’s narrative helps alleviate the impacts of these events and their associated emotions. Writing one’s way through life’s challenges also helps to recognize and celebrate courage and survival.

“The mere expression of a trauma is not sufficient to bring about long-term psychological changes. Health gains appear to require translating experiences into language.” Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999

Expressive Writing as a Non-Clinical Support Modality

Expressive writing is affordable, resource-effective, does not have to be time consuming, and can be self-initiated, and is flexible enough to be done nearly anywhere and at any time. This makes it a viable option for those isolated by health, social, or geographic barriers.

For those harmed by the stigma that often surrounds mental health services, the potential privacy of expressive writing can be attractive. While this writing can be done alone, within the WCC’s methodology, it takes place in groups and adds a layer of community building and witness. Having one’s voice witnessed and mirrored back can be very empowering for a writer.

The Healing Mechanisms at Work

While a great deal is known about the benefits of expressive writing, the precise “mechanism” at work remains somewhat mysterious. When debating how and why expressive writing is successful, it is important to explore the characteristics of the individual writer and the process itself.

While several theories exist, most researchers believe the narrative form helps humans to navigate complex experiences and emotions by integrating them into one’s evolving life storyline. Narrative identity, as it is known by psychologists, helps people convey to themselves and to others who they are now, how they came to be, and where they think their lives may be going in the future.

How narrative is important

  • Weaves together reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future
  • Helps provide cohesion and offers the author a sense of purpose and unity
  • Incorporates moments of disruption or pain into the fabric of the story, which is essential for healing and well-being
  • Crafting a narrative forms a connection to oneself and to others

Defining voice

At WCC, we celebrate authentic voice. Authentic voice can be defined as:

  • The individual’s genuine form of expression, which may include unique use of language, vocabulary, imager/metaphor, and other elements
  • A tool for expression that allows for connection with others
  • An illusion created by a writer that they are speaking directly to an audience “through his ears, even when he is receiving the message through his eyes” (Clark, 2016)
  • Evolving – voice is an “ongoing human labour that constructs and reconstructs ourselves and our relations to others and the world” (Lensmire & Satanovsky, 1998)

Authentic voice matters because:

  • It creates human connection between a writer and their reader
  • It demonstrates one’s authentic language, cultural heritage, and experience, which may be lost in an increasingly technological society
  • As a writing voice strengthens, so too does the writer, and this often extends to other forms of communications as well, forming a stronger overall communicator
  • It is connected to one’s identity and consciousness

“Writing to heal, then, and making that writing public, as I see it, is the most important emotional, psychological, artistic, and political project of our time.” DeSalvo, 1999