Expressive Writing

by Site Author

Theodore Roosevelt kept a diary. In a biography of Roosevelt, Edmund Morris describes Roosevelt’s diary as being a constant source of comfort through difficult times.

Theodore’s habit, in moments of joy or sorrow, had always been to reach for a pen, as others might reach for a rosary or a bottle.

It was to the notebook that Roosevelt turned when his first wife passed away. He composed the note below as soon as he learned of her death.

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Such a practice—writing through difficulties—has a sound basis. James Pennebaker, a psychologist at UT Austin, is famous for establishing the efficacy of “expressive writing.” His most famous study was very simple. He asked a randomly selected control group to write about neutral topics. The treatment group, in contrast, was given the following instructions.

For the next 4 days, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life… All of your writing will be completely confidential. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.

The effects of expressive writing were profound. Those who wrote about traumatic events made fewer visits to the doctor; their health improved. That finding has held up to replication; other studies have found similar benefits.