A Most Helpful Journal Technique – Expressive Writing

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June’s Journaling Technique is Expressive Writing

In my last post, I spoke about anxiety and while I didn’t speak directly to journaling, anxiety is one of those things that journaling can help. A lot. One technique to use is Expressive Writing.

Often, when we are dealing with anxiety, there are so many things mixed in to make our anxiety worse. We worry about so many things, things in the present, past and the future. By writing some of those worries, we can learn to let go of those things.

The Expressive Writing technique is a fabulous technique. It is also well studied. James Pennebaker began studying this technique in the mid-’80s and discovered it’s healing abilities for people struggling with stresses in their lives.

In my practice, I often give this technique for people to use early in their healing. I do that because often people come into therapy because of an event or other memory that has metastasized making their anxiety run out of control.

We all have those things. Perhaps something happened in your past that you were hurt by or ashamed of and you still think of it every day. Or the images of something that happened to you keep intruding on your day to day life.

And, because I don’t give people techniques or suggestions without trying them myself, I speak from experience when I say this technique works.

The past couple of (several) years have been difficult but a few moments stand out sharply in my memory. One of those was a betrayal on a grand scale.

I won’t go into details because they are unnecessary, but it was something that hurt me deeply. I processed it when it happened and I was able to function, even heal. However, about a year after that event, I began to struggle with flashbacks from that specific event.

In those moments I was right back there, in the moment of the betrayal, with all of the shame, anger, pain, and disbelief rushing through my body. And, once again, I began to have a trauma response.

The difference between the time the incident occurred and a year later, is that I had taken a Write to Heal class. In that class, I learned so many different techniques and one of those was expressive writing.

The funny thing is, as I was taking that class, my thought was I wanted to try the expressive write and have it mean something. That meant, I wanted to process something real and that was affecting me.

Be careful what you wish for.

Expressive Write Technique

Although I would encourage you to read this in Pennebaker’s own words, expressive write comes down to a few simple steps:

Expressive Write General Instructions

1. Write for 20 minutes, per day for four consecutive days. Set a timer.

2. Choose a topic that has meaning for you. Something that is “on top of your head” that you can’t seem to get out of your mind.

3. Write continuously – Put your pen to the paper and write without worrying about punctuation, grammar, spelling or even complete sentences. If you struggle with what to write next, simply repeat what you’ve already said and continue to write.

4. Write only for yourself – Because you will be writing about difficult things, this is for your eyes only. Resist the urge to show your work to anyone.

5. Observe the “flip-out” rule. This is probably the most important rule for you to observe. If you begin to write something that is causing emotional upheaval or you begin to “flip-out” – Stop. Avoid that topic and find something that, while may be related, isn’t as difficult to write about. To continue may cause more emotional hurt rather than healing.

6. Expect Feelings – This may seem too simple but, especially on the first day of writing, you may feel sadness similar to watching a sad movie. If your feelings are bigger than that, you may be experiencing a bit of freak out and need to take care of yourself.

James Pennebaker – Expressive Writing

Be Careful What You Wish For

Remember when I said, “be careful what you wish for”? Well, I really do need to remember that for myself as I began to struggle with the memories and trauma from the previous year’s event.

I’m not sure how long I struggled but it wasn’t long. I hate feeling like that after I’d spent the better part of the previous year working on all of my issues. So, it didn’t take long before I began to use the Expressive Writing technique to process this event.

On the first day, I re-read the book and the instructions. I set my timer and off I went.

It didn’t take long for the tears to flow and for a brief moment, I wondered if I was freaking out. But it really was simply the pain I thought I processed and yet, it seems, I simply buried them and moved on. The tears lasted through the write and the post-write questionnaire Pennebaker recommends. The sadness lasted for a bit, I think even into the second day.

On the second day, I came to my journal and the writing was just as intense as the first day. But there were no tears. I wrote about the event and my feelings. Each word that I put on the page I could feel myself releasing all of the pain and anger. Afterward, there was none of the sadness of the first day.

The third day came and I wondered what I was going to write about. After all, it was the third of 4 days of writing about the same event (which is the correct way to do the expressive write). I managed to get through my 20 minutes of writing. By the end, I was sick of writing but I knew that the pain and anger I felt was gone.

Often, I use the term neutralizing for this process. Painful memories have an emotional charge which seems to give them power that we can’t control. Expressive writing seems to neutralize this charge which leads to healing.

For More Info

If you are interested in more information, please check out Pennebaker’s book ‘Expressive Writing, Words that Heal’. It’s a nice read and is gives a bit of the research behind the exercise.

Expressive Writing is a simple yet profound exercise that can be used at any time to help heal difficult memories. I hope you try it for yourself.

Until next time,

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