The Expressive Writing Project

A large number of experiments have been conducted on expressive writing since the original publication in 1986. The original technique had people write about the most traumatic experiences of their lives for 15-20 minutes per day for 3-4 consecutive days. Compared with people who had written about neutral topics, those who wrote about traumas showed reduced physician visits for illness, improvements in immune markers, and improvements in mental health over the next several months.

We now know that people can write in many different ways. Some studies find that writing for just a few minutes can be beneficial. Rather than write about traumatic experiences, most studies now have people write about issues that they are bothered by. If you find yourself thinking or worrying about something too much, writing may be a solution to get past it.

The current writing project is intended as a demonstration of how you can use expressive writing to help you cope with the COVID-19 event. In fact, many people often start writing about COVID-19 and then begin writing about other topics that are bothering them more than they thought. And this is what expressive writing is good for. Use it to try to understand those problems that are getting under your skin.

Expressive Writing Resources

There are a number of very good resources about expressive writing that can be helpful.

Broad overview website. Check out this website that summarizes the expressive writing technique. It was written by Professor James Pennebaker who is also the person responsible for the Pandemic Project websites.

Video about expressive writing research. This educational video was made for psychology students interested in running writing experiments.

Popular books

Adams, Kathleen (2009). Journal to the Self: Twenty-two paths to Personal Growth. Hatchett Press.

Baldwin, Christina (1992). One to One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing. Evans Publisher.

Karr, Mary (2015). The Art of Memoir. Harper.

Fox, John (1997). Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. Tarcher Press.

Goldberg, Natalie (2013). The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. Atria Books.

Marinella, Sandra (2017). The Story you Need to Tell: Writing to heal from trauma, illness, or loss. New World Library.

Pennebaker, James W (2011). The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words say about Us. Bloomsbury.

Pennebaker, J.W. & Smyth, J.M. (2016). Opening Up by Writing it Down. NY: Guilford Press.

Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words that Heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor.

Rainer, Tristine (1979). The New Diary : How to Use a Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity. TarcherSome References for Writing, Journaling, or Diaries.

Wilson, Timothy D. (2011). Redirect: Changing the Stories we Live By. Little, Brown Spark

Selected Scientific Articles

To get a reasonably complete summary of articles, try using Google Scholar

Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346.

Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2008). Effects of (very) brief writing on health: The two‐minute miracle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13(1), 9-14.

Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 823.

Park, J., Ayduk, Ö., & Kross, E. (2016). Stepping back to move forward: Expressive writing promotes self-distancing. Emotion, 16(3), 349.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166.

Pennebaker, J.W., & Chung, C.K. (2007). Expressive writing, emotional upheavals, and health. In H. Friedman and R. Silver (Eds.), Foundations of Health Psychology (pp. 263-284). New York: Oxford University Press.

Pennebaker, J.W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 239-245.

Sloan, D. M., & Marx, B. P. (2019). Written exposure therapy for PTSD: A brief treatment approach for mental health professionals. American Psychological Association.

Smyth, J. M., Stone, A. A., Hurewitz, A., & Kaell, A. (1999). Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis: A randomized trial. JAMA, 281(14), 1304-1309.

Wilhelm, K., & Crawford, J. (2018). Expressive Writing and Stress-Related Disorders. In S Folkman (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Stress and Mental Health.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you find that you are extremely depressed, anxious, or in need of help, there are a number of resources available. Here is a partial list.

If you feel that you or someone you know is incapacitated by feelings of distress, please call a mental health hotline: For less severe experiences of anxiety and depression, especially if these feelings are related to COVID-19, a good place to begin is the website of the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC.

You can get additional tips for dealing with general anxiety and depression from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

During periods of stress, many people increase their use of drugs and alcohol. For help with substance abuse issues, check out the SAMHSA webpage.

If you live in the United States and you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call 911. If outside the US, call your medical emergency number.