“You don’t remember me, but I was in your experiment a year ago. I just wanted to thank you. It changed my life.”
James Pennebaker has had a number of people say this to him over the years.
In the early 80’s he came across a study showing that people who experienced personal traumas but didn’t discuss them were more likely to get sick.
He wondered if just writing about their emotional upheavals could help people recover. And the research he did changed lives.
In the 30 years since, hundreds of studies have documented the effectiveness of expressive writing.
It helped with anxiety, tragedy, heartache… It even gave relief to those coping with cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, and AIDS.
People who write about their problems gain a host of benefits including feeling happier, sleeping better, and even getting better grades.
I wanted to learn more, so I gave the man himself a call.
Jamie Pennebaker is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a number of books including:
In this post you’ll learn how writing can help you overcome emotional hardships and the best way to use it to help you get past tough times.
Let’s get started.
Can Just 20 Minutes of Writing Change Your Life?
Bottling up your problems is stressful. People who keep their struggles a secret go to the doctor 40% more often than those who don’t.
Some of us talk to friends or see a therapist when life gets hard. But not everyone.
It’s risky. Talking about your problems can mean feeling judged. You’re putting yourself on the line when you’re most vulnerable.
But writing lets you get many of the benefits of talking about your problems without the risk.
But what is it about writing that calms the mind and helps us heal emotionally?
Only then can it rest. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts into a coherent structure. It helps you make sense of life.
Not only do people who use expressive writing feel better afterward, but that relief has real world benefits.
Those who wrote about the stress of being laid off were more likely to find jobs.
(For more on how to overcome regret, click here.)
So writing helps us open up when it doesn’t feel like there’s anyone we can talk to. And it makes sense of the things that shake up our lives.
So what’s the best way to actually do it? There are 4 steps:
1) Ask “How Long Has It Been?”
If you’re upset in the days immediately after a breakup or the death of a loved one, that’s natural.
But when you’re still feeling distressed months later, that’s when you need help and writing can really make a difference.
2) Commit To 20 Minutes For Four Days
Commit to writing about what’s bothering you for 20 minutes on four consecutive days.
This is what the bulk of the research shows provides the best benefits. You can do more if you want; this is a minimum.
When’s the best time to do it? End of the workday seems to be a good time for many people.
(To learn more about what the words you use say about you, click here.)
Got it on your calendar? Good. Here’s what to do.
3) Write Write Write
Just write about what’s bothering you for 20 minutes straight.
Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t worry about what anyone might think. You can delete it or throw it out when you’re done writing.
Just write about what’s troubling you and don’t hold back.
Longhand or typing doesn’t matter. Research even shows talking into a voice recorder works too.
(To learn about all the other issues writing can help you with, click here.)
In general, just doing the writing for 20 minutes for four days is enough to provide people with noticeable relief. But let’s go for bonus points.
There are a number of things Jamie has seen that correlate with better results.
4) Stuff That Can Help The Process
When writing, it’s helpful to tie the issue into other areas of your life. How does the problem relate to your work? Your family? Your relationships?
People tend to benefit most from expressive writing if they openly acknowledge emotions.
Constructing a story is powerful.
Switch perspectives. Those who benefit the most can see the event through other people’s eyes.
You’re not writing an accident report for an insurance company. Don’t be distant. Make your writing personal.
(To learn more about how to improve your writing skills in general, click here.)
Let’s round up the info and see what Jamie recommends about how to best fit this into our lives.
Here’s how to use writing to overcome the things that upset you:
- Has enough time passed? Are you suffering longer than you should? Then writing can help.
- Commit to four days of 20 minutes a day. Most people write at the end of their workday.
- Write nonstop for 20 minutes about what’s bothering you.Don’t worry about errors or what anyone might think. This is for you.
- Tying in other areas of your life, acknowledging emotions, telling a story, switching perspectives and making it personal are all associated with better recovery.
You don’t need to wait until you’re getting divorced or somebody dies to use this. You can write whenever you think it might help. It’s literary ibuprofen.
The science and the numbers are great but I have one more thing to add: I’ve used this myself.
A few months ago someone I cared about deeply betrayed my trust. No apology afterward. No concern for my feelings.
It made it hard for me to trust anyone afterward. I was second-guessing the motives of everyone in my life.
After writing for just 20 minutes it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The rage stopped surging up. The rumination died down.
Chaos in your life doesn’t need to mean chaos in your head.
Okay, this blog post is over, folks. So maybe now’s the time to stop reading and start writing.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
Join over 135,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.