Think for a moment about a tree in your backyard, or your street, or the local park. Think about how big it is, how all its leaves fit together into some kind of beautifully chaotic design. The flowers, the texture of the bark. The different colours in each individual leaf, the way it smells (not that you might have ever checked this, but go crush a leaf and try it out).
That myriad of information is why children, particularly before they learn to talk, are so amazed by a tree. They see all that detail, and they have no way of reducing that detail into something smaller and more containable. But fast forward a few years, and they do. ‘Oh yeah, it’s another tree.’ They stop really looking at trees, at how each one is different. They have a label now. They get less attention and the brain space they take up is reduces. Language helps us organise all the information in the world in a way that we can reduce our attention on what’s not needed right now, and put more attention on what is.
Putting experiences into words is helpful for us as humans. It’s why talking works to heal trauma, and why writing can do the same thing for you. Putting experiences into words contains them, helps to reduce the attention they get.
Expressive writing is writing about events which have caused you stress or pain – whether that’s the uncomfortable feelings that come with indecision, or a significant trauma. It’s writing that might start off relating the factual details that happened, but which ends up capturing your thoughts and feelings about what happened – and that’s the important part.
How does this relate to your health? Whenever you’re stressed, your body and brain change the way they work. They go into ‘survival’ mode, where the focus is on surviving the stressor, and other processes, including immune functioning and the reduction of experiences into words, get sidelined. That stuff, the brain rightly figures, can wait until we’re safe.
The problem with this is twofold. First up, a lot of us are chronically stressed. We never tell our brain and body that we’re safe, that it’s okay to get the immune, digestive and other systems back up and running properly. And as part of this, even once we are safe, we don’t want to process what happened when we were stressed. The more stressful the experience, the less inclined we are to deal with it (and the more we actually need to!). If it’s horrible to think about it, shameful to talk about it, and easier to ignore it, why would you want to go back and remember it? After all, this approach works pretty well in the short term. But in the long term, you pay a cost in the form of the stress it takes to repress your memory, as well the consequences of this event taking up more brain space than it needs to, what with all its unprocessed emotions, sensations and thoughts. Your brain will return to it often, trying to process it, and you end up distracted and disconnected from the present.
How to get out of it? You’ve got to get it out. You no longer suppress the event, you contain it – you take all that information about sensations, thoughts and feelings and squash it down into words. Talking is just as good, but writing is often more practical – you don’t need the right person to talk to, and if you’re afraid of rejection by others if you show them what’s really going on inside, you can sidestep that possibility with writing.
It doesn’t only work for traumatic events, this technique also works for milder stressors, like a run-in with the boss. Even some positive events are stressful and you can help process that stress by writing about the experience (but generally we talk about positive experiences more freely so it doesn’t become a problem).
Pretty much any event that you can’t move past once a few days has passed will respond to expressive writing. If you can’t get it out of your head, your brain is trying to process the event in the only way it knows how – by thinking. As you may know from experience, it’s rarely effective. You tend to get stuck in the event instead, overwhelmed by it again, and end up re-igniting the emotions, rather than letting them go.
How do you work the magic of expressive writing?
1. Set aside 20-30 minutes when you won’t be disturbed. Even better, set aside time after that period to just regroup – add another 15 minutes for a walk, cup of tea, or time to stare at a blank wall.
2. Write the event down. Whatever you can remember, and the details don’t matter much. They’re just a nice way in to what you’re really after – your thoughts and feelings about what happened.
3. Connect in to those thoughts and feelings and keep writing. Writing as continuously as you can, even if that means writing “I’m not sure what to write next”, is ideal. If you’re struggling to keep the writing flowing, answer these questions: ‘How did I feel then?’ ‘What was I afraid of?’ ‘What got to me the most?’ ‘What does this event mean?’ ‘what does this event remind me of?’ ‘How has this event changed how I think about myself?’ ‘What will I do differently as a result of this experience?’
4. When time is up, or you feel the exercise is complete, stop. You will likely feel worse than when you started, because your attention has been on something unpleasant for the last 20 minutes. (This is why time to rebalance after the exercise is good). Your feelings should change within the next few hours, and you’ll soon be feeling lighter.
5. Repeat as necessary whenever something is playing on your mind for more than about 72 hours, and/or whenever you’re reminded of things from the past that you feel ‘stuck’ with – old anger, guilt, shame, resentment, sadness.
Be sure to watch out for the following traps:
Sticking to just the facts. This is not a fact finding mission! The goal is to be subjective, to focus on your own interpretation of the situation - which means your thoughts or feelings. No-one is checking for accuracy. Just narrating what happened may mean you’re still scared of expressing your feelings (see point three also).
Writing about other people. While of course your interpretations of them will come into your writing, be wary of focusing excessively on someone else – again, it’s hiding from writing about your thoughts and feelings.
Holding back. This should be no holds barred writing – one of the goals is to lift the lid on that bubbling pot underneath, to reduce the stress it takes to hold on the lid. Do what you need to feel safe about writing down your true feelings – delete it, burn it, write slow, write fast, only ever write when absolutely no one else is around – in order to get at your truth.
Now, because you’re playing alone at home, with no supervision, you need to be your own therapist. If writing is having the opposite effect to what you’d hoped, and you’re becoming overwhelmed by negative emotions or don’t feel it’s helping, please stop. Those with deeply held trauma, and people who are extremely negative in their thinking (think depression here), can get stuck trying to contain the experience and end up overwhelmed. If you think this might be you, try out the exercise on something that doesn’t feel so ‘heavy’ at first, and see how you go.
Remember, you can always contact a therapist for support with this process. That way, you can get the same benefits from expression – but with more support and control in place to ensure the process is beneficial to you.
Click here to book an appointment with me if you’d like my help with the process.
Want to know more about expressive writing and how it works? Click on the pic below to order the book “Opening Up by Writing it Down”, which contains the research on how expressive writing works as well as lots of helpful exercises for using expressive writing in different situations.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.