Expressive writing for healing: what the research says 

By Sarah Cannata

My own lived experience tells me writing can be healing, but what does the research say? First, let’s clear a common misconception. 

Everyone can write

I was in a Facebook group earlier this year, and a member expressed they just can’t write. The group admin replied, confirming that some people simply cannot write and pointed the member to other activities like drawing and photography.

Everyone can write. Finding something challenging does not mean we cannot do it. Thinking we’re bad at something doesn’t mean we can’t do it. So many people rave to me about how they find drawing healing. I don’t. I even enrolled in a course recently and quickly realised drawing is not a tool for me. It frustrates me more than anything, and that’s perfectly ok. Sure, I can’t draw well, but I can draw (something that resembles a stick figure). If writing is not a tool for you, that’s perfectly fine. Continue experimenting until you find a tool you do find healing. But trust me, you can write.

James Pennebaker and expressive writing

James Pennebaker was the first researcher to study the therapeutic effects of writing using expressive writing in 1986. Over four days, participants wrote continuously for 15 minutes a day. Participants were split into two groups:

Control group: asked to write objectively about superficial topics

Experimental group: instructed to write about the most traumatic experiences of their lives

Post-experiment, Pennebaker tracked several measurements. His findings included that relative to the control group, the experimental group made fewer visits to their doctor in the following months. 

The broader benefits of expressive writing for healing

As you can imagine, this research instigated several follow-up studies. Here are some other findings that fascinate me.

Intrusive and avoidant thoughts

An American Psychological Association (APA) study published in 2001 indicated that expressive writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory.

Healing the physical body

Expressive writing can positively contribute to healing the physical body, according to research published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2013.

Boosting immunity

Another APA study published in 2002 found writing can help strengthen people’s immune systems and minds by helping us manage and learn from negative experiences.

Emotional well-being and happiness

Journaling can improve our mood and give us a greater sense of overall emotional well-being and happiness, according to psychologists who coined the term the ‘Bridget Jones effect’. Brain scans on volunteers showed putting feelings down on paper reduces activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the intensity of our emotions.


Writing can make people more resilient, according to a 2017 study published in the Academy of Management Journal. The study found that unemployed professionals who wrote about their thoughts and emotions surrounding their job loss were reemployed quicker than those who wrote about non-traumatic topics or did not write.

The role of language in coping with trauma

People are talking more and more about trauma these days. I resonate with Gabor Maté’s definition of trauma: 

Trauma is not what happens to you; it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.

In follow-up studies, Pennebaker sought to understand his initial findings better. How people use function words (‘I’; ‘the’; ‘and’; ‘to’; and ‘a’) proved telling. He found that those who could move forward positively wrote about the situation from multiple perspectives. Pennebaker stated this was a key factor in helping people process their most difficult experiences. Other words like ‘realise’; ‘think’; ‘consider’; ‘because’; and ‘reason’ helped people to construct a story, gain insights and move forward.

Writing about trauma and embodied writing

From what I’ve experienced when working with clients, it’s how we use writing that truly counts. I feel writing can be similar to talk therapy if we are simply rehashing the same series of events over and over. Of course, such repetition can lead to re-traumatisation. Whenever we write, particularly about the past, we may be triggered. When first running healing through writing sessions with clients, I noticed we were constantly tapping on trauma during sessions. This prompted me to delve deeper into learning about trauma. 

Since becoming an Embodied Processing Practitioner, I’ve added a crucial component to the Storytelling for the Soul approach: resourcing. Embodied processing is a body-based approach to working with trauma, and resourcing is a vital component of the process. Here is my affiliate link if you are interested in learning more and studying embodied processing. To begin and conclude a session, I encourage clients to engage in resourcing, which aims to build a container of safety, stability and support. If people don’t resonate with those words (some don’t), think of the opposite of overwhelm. We’re trying to give ourselves a comforting place to return to if triggered. 

Anything can be a resource – the body; a pet; a memory; a person; or even an imagined place. A resource grows, changes and evolves over time. I incorporate a guided resourcing meditation each morning. This is a lifestyle, not something we do here and there, with huge expectations. Resourcing allows us to grow in our capacity so that we can write about past traumas without tipping into overwhelm and a dysregulated nervous system state. I’m also a big fan of incorporating other exercises to regulate the nervous system in sessions. For example, breathing; shaking and bouncing; yawning… this isn’t a one size fits all approach. Different techniques resonate with different people.

Without this safe, stable and supportive container when engaging in embodied writing, healing cannot occur.


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