Last updated on 19th January 2015
therapeutic benefits from writing: Quite often “therapeutic” approaches that primarily involve reading also include writing components and vice-versa. Probably the most extensively studied form of therapeutic writing is the large body of research that has grown from Jamie Pennebaker’s work on expressive writing. On his website Pennebaker lists over 300 research articles published on writing & disclosure in the last 30 years (Pennebaker 2015). His recent book “Expressive writing: Words that heal” (Pennebaker and Evans 2014) provides a good practical overview of this method. Oscar Wilde wrote “The truth is rarely pure and never simple” and this apparently straightforward writing approach is a good illustration of this warning – see, for example the article “Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe” and the 19 research papers in the special section of the British Journal of Health Psychology devoted to this issue (Smyth and Pennebaker 2008). A particularly interesting extension of expressive writing is the recent work by Sloan & colleagues successfully using a 30 minute x 5 intervention for full syndrome PTSD (Sloan, Marx et al. 2012). Meston et al. have also shown benefits from this extended form of expressive writing with the particular subject area suggested to participants making a further difference to success rates (Meston, Lorenz et al. 2013). It’s important though to use expressive writing cautiously. Like all effective interventions it can also do harm (Sbarra, Boals et al. 2013, Niles, Haltom et al. 2014), so be informed before trying it out (for example by reading Pennebaker’s recent book) and monitor responses so that one can adapt or stop using the approach if it seems contra-indicated.
As expressive writing has become better established as an interesting and often worthwhile intervention, a whole series of other writing approaches have also sprung up. Quite a few of them are backed up by at least some research. Examples include writing about positive futures (Harrist, Carlozzi et al. 2007, Layous, Katherine Nelson et al. 2013), positive experiences (Burton and King 2004, Burton and King 2009), writing “counterfactually” (Koo, Algoe et al. 2008, Heintzelman, Christopher et al. 2013), working with dissonance (Stice, Marti et al. 2008, Stice, Rohde et al. 2009), blogging (Tan 2008, Ko and Kuo 2009), using self-affirmation (Yeager and Walton 2011, Creswell, Dutcher et al. 2013), looking for learning opportunities (Watkins, Cruz et al. 2008, North, Pai et al. 2011), practising gratitude (Sergeant and Mongrain 2011, Toepfer, Cichy et al. 2012), physically disposing of written thoughts (Li, Wei et al. 2010, Briñol, Gascó et al. 2012), reminding oneself about important relationships (Slatcher and Pennebaker 2006, Twenge, Zhang et al. 2007), and self-transcendence & values-affirmation (Crocker, Niiya et al. 2008, Burson, Crocker et al. 2012).
There are so many worthwhile approaches in these complex, intertwined fields of therapeutic reading and writing. Exciting times. As has been said “It’s important that we keep open minds, but not so open that our brains fall out”.
Briñol, P., M. Gascó, R. E. Petty and J. Horcajo (2012). "Treating thoughts as material objects can increase or decrease their impact on evaluation." Psychological Science.
Burson, A., J. Crocker and D. Mischkowski (2012). "Two types of value-affirmation: Implications for self-control following social exclusion." Social psychological and personality science 3(4): 510-516.
Burton, C. M. and L. A. King (2004). "The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences." Journal of Research in Personality 38(2): 150-163.
Burton, C. M. and L. A. King (2009). "The health benefits of writing about positive experiences: the role of broadened cognition." Psychol Health 24(8): 867-879.
Creswell, J. D., J. M. Dutcher, W. M. P. Klein, P. R. Harris and J. M. Levine (2013). "Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress." PLoS ONE 8(5): e62593.
Crocker, J., Y. Niiya and D. Mischkowski (2008). "Why does writing about important values reduce defensiveness? Self-affirmation and the role of positive other-directed feelings." Psychol Sci 19(7): 740-747.
Harrist, S., B. L. Carlozzi, A. R. McGovern and A. W. Harrist (2007). "Benefits of expressive writing and expressive talking about life goals." Journal of Research in Personality 41(4): 923-930.
Heintzelman, S. J., J. Christopher, J. Trent and L. A. King (2013). "Counterfactual thinking about one’s birth enhances well-being judgments." Journal of Positive Psychology 8(1): 44-49.
Ko, H. C. and F. Y. Kuo (2009). "Can blogging enhance subjective well-being through self-disclosure?" Cyberpsychol Behav 12(1): 75-79.
Koo, M., S. B. Algoe, T. D. Wilson and D. T. Gilbert (2008). "It's a wonderful life: mentally subtracting positive events improves people's affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts." J Pers Soc Psychol 95(5): 1217-1224.
Layous, K., S. Katherine Nelson and S. Lyubomirsky (2013). "What Is the Optimal Way to Deliver a Positive Activity Intervention? The Case of Writing About One’s Best Possible Selves." Journal of Happiness Studies 14(2): 635-654.
Li, X., L. Wei and D. Soman (2010). "Sealing the emotions genie: the effects of physical enclosure on psychological closure." Psychol Sci 21(8): 1047-1050.
Meston, C. M., T. A. Lorenz and K. R. Stephenson (2013). "Effects of expressive writing on sexual dysfunction, depression, and PTSD in women with a history of childhood sexual abuse: Results from a randomized clinical trial." The Journal of Sexual Medicine 10(9): 2177-2189.
Niles, A. N., K. E. Haltom, C. M. Mulvenna, M. D. Lieberman and A. L. Stanton (2014). "Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for psychological and physical health: the moderating role of emotional expressivity." Anxiety Stress Coping 27(1): 1-17.
North, R. J., A. V. Pai, J. G. Hixon and C. J. Holahan (2011). "Finding happiness in negative emotions: An experimental test of a novel expressive writing paradigm." The Journal of Positive Psychology 6(3): 192-203.
Pennebaker, J. (2015). "James W. Pennebaker website." Retrieved January 10, 2015.
Pennebaker, J. and J. Evans (2014). “Expressive writing: Words that heal.” Idyll Arbor.
Sbarra, D. A., A. Boals, A. E. Mason, G. M. Larson and M. R. Mehl (2013). "Expressive writing can impede emotional recovery following marital separation." Clinical Psychological Science 1(2): 120-134.
Sergeant, S. and M. Mongrain (2011). "Are positive psychology exercises helpful for people with depressive personality styles?" The Journal of Positive Psychology 6(4): 260-272.
Slatcher, R. B. and J. W. Pennebaker (2006). "How do I love thee? Let me count the words: the social effects of expressive writing." Psychol Sci 17(8): 660-664.
Sloan, D. M., B. P. Marx, M. J. Bovin, B. A. Feinstein and M. W. Gallagher (2012). "Written exposure as an intervention for PTSD: A randomized clinical trial with motor vehicle accident survivors." Behaviour Research and Therapy 50(10): 627-635.
Smyth, J. M. and J. W. Pennebaker (2008). "Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe." Br J Health Psychol 13(Pt 1): 1-7.
Stice, E., C. N. Marti, S. Spoor, K. Presnell and H. Shaw (2008). "Dissonance and healthy weight eating disorder prevention programs: long-term effects from a randomized efficacy trial." J Consult Clin Psychol 76(2): 329-340.
Stice, E., P. Rohde, J. Gau and H. Shaw (2009). "An effectiveness trial of a dissonance-based eating disorder prevention program for high-risk adolescent girls." J Consult Clin Psychol 77(5): 825-834.
Tan, L. (2008). "Psychotherapy 2.0: MySpace blogging as self-therapy." Am J Psychother 62(2): 143-163.
Toepfer, S., K. Cichy and P. Peters (2012). "Letters of gratitude: Further evidence for author benefits." Journal of Happiness Studies 13(1): 187-201.
Twenge, J. M., L. Zhang, K. R. Catanese, B. Dolan-Pascoe, L. F. Lyche and R. F. Baumeister (2007). "Replenishing connectedness: reminders of social activity reduce aggression after social exclusion." Br J Soc Psychol 46(Pt 1): 205-224.
Watkins, P. C., L. Cruz, H. Holben and R. L. Kolts (2008). "Taking care of business? Grateful processing of unpleasant memories." The Journal of Positive Psychology 3(2): 87 - 99.
Yeager, D. S. and G. M. Walton (2011). "Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic." Review of Educational Research 81(2): 267-301.