Tips for Doing Expressive Writing

    Write for at least four days, for a minimum of 20 minutes per day. If you find as you come to the end of your 20 minutes that you want to keep going, by all means do so. However, extra time devoted to writing one day cannot replace any part of the requisite 20 minutes the next day.

    You can write about the same event on all four days, or you can write about different experiences. Whatever you choose to write about should be something that you have found to be personally disturbing to you.

    Write without stopping. Once you have put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, write continuously.

    Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation.

    Acknowledge your emotions openly. Allow yourself to feel and label all the emotions, both positive and negative, associated with the event. Express yourself openly and honestly — you are not writing an intellectual essay here, you are putting your heart and soul on the page.

    Construct a coherent story. Sometimes what happens during and after a trauma feels out of control. You can begin to put things back together again by constructing a meaningful narrative of what happened and how it has affected you. Try switching perspectives, writing the story not only from your own point of view, but from how others involved in the situation witnessed it. Write only for yourself.

    When you are finished this writing, you will hide or destroy it. This writing is not to be shared — the intention of sharing it will change the degree to which you are honest and present in your work. If writing about some event prompts you to communicate with someone about it, you can write to them in a separate letter when you are finished your expressive writing for the day.

    The Flip Out Rule. If you feel that writing about a particular subject will be too much for you and will ‘push you over the edge,” then don’t write about it. It’s that simple. Write only what you can handle emotionally at this moment in time.

    Allow yourself a few minutes after your writing to sit and reflect on what you have written and how you are feeling. Many people note that they are sad or depressed when they are finished. This feeling normally passes within a few minutes or a few hours — much like the mood lingering after a sad movie passes after a while.

    The good news is that this short-term pain is very much replaced by long term gain. Almost inevitably people report that in the weeks and months following the expressive writing, they can “let it go” to a degree they haven’t been able to before. They feel happier and less negative. And they also say that the frequency and strength of repetitive thoughts, depressive symptoms and general anxiety all drop off.

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In the summer of 2013 I was invited to do a TEDtalk on “Shining the light on our Changing Communities”. I talked about the therapeutic writing program I do with incarcerated women. You can view the talk here.

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