In the [WCC] workshops, I felt moments of great connection with participants, as we wrote and read our stories, often crying, laughing, and nodding to each other in the process. Several moments stand out in my memory as particularly impactful when, from my perspective, participants felt understood and viewed their experiences in new, powerful, hope-filled ways.”
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.
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.
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.
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