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Mental Health

Expressive Writing: A Revolutionary Therapeutic Discovery

The Writing Paradigm, developed by James W. Pennebaker, states that “when individuals are given the opportunity to disclose deeply personal aspects of their lives, they readily do so.” Individuals who have undergone a traumatic event are naturally inclined to express their experience to others whether it be verbally or written in words. In fact, when individuals who have been subjected to trauma inhibit the expression of these emotions, various negative health effects may begin to appear as a direct result of their active suppression. It is this inherent need to outwardly express emotions in the form of language that has led to the development of expressive writing as a method of therapy for trauma victims. This produces material that is now regarded as “trauma writing.”

While only having been officially defined in recent, trauma writing has existed since humans gained the ability to translate emotion into language on paper.  Whether they realize it or not, through writing extensive memoirs, or simply by keeping a daily journal, many people actively participate in trauma writing as both a way to alleviate emotional stress and a method of forming a deeper understanding of their emotions surrounding the traumatic event they have experienced. This leads to the question at hand: Why are we so drawn to linguistic expression, and why does it work?

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To help us answer this question, Pennebaker hypothesizes that “if an emotion or experience remains in analog form, it cannot be understood or conceptually tied to the meaning of an event.” Essentially, in order for a trauma victim to fully comprehend their trauma, they first must translate it into language form. This conversion allows for a conceptual process in the brain to take over as it frees the brain of cluttered emotion, which allows for a heightened cognitive function. From this point, individuals are able to begin to summarize and develop a story for their trauma. This story serves to help trauma victims label emotions, organize events, and understand how their behavior connects to their experience. Pennebaker found that “after people write about troubling events, they devote less cognitive effort on them. This allows them to be better listeners, better friends.” Not only this, but in writing about emotional trauma, patients became more inclined to continue to share their experiences with others, furthering the positive effects of emotional expression–“disclosure begets disclosure.”

In analyzing this information, it can be concluded that expressive writing works because it is a method of what Pennebaker calls “Life Correction.” The act of expressive writing causes people to take a step back and look at their emotional upheavals from a new perspective, forcing the analysis of issues and events in our lives that explain who we have become, what we are doing, and why. In doing this people are able to make life corrections as they now have the knowledge and perspective to do so. Expressive writing works because it allows for a clarified understanding of the past.

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Expressive writing has proven to be an integral aspect in both healing from trauma as well as in the emotional development of human beings overall. In expressing our emotions through language, free on inhibition, humans are able to clear their mind for enhanced cognitive function, allowing for the labeling and understanding of past events and emotions, ultimately offering a newfound clarity of one’s trauma. As a writer who actively participates in the creation of this form of literature, I have found that the broadened perspective it gives me allows me to not only heal from my past but to share my experience with and give perspective to others–something I believe is my primary duty as a writer. While there is still much to be uncovered about the effects and various methods of expressive writing, it is clear that writing does in fact help us become healthier, and higher functioning humans. So, the next time your emotions seem to drown your mind, write, you may be surprised by the new world view you discover.



Emma deZarn is a third-year at UCSB in the College of Creative Studies majoring in Writing and Literature as well as Film and Media Studies with a minor in Applied Psychology.  Apart from being a senior editor at her campus, Emma is a Ballet dancer, musician, guinea pig mom, all-around creator, and avid chai tea connoisseur with a passion for writing. She is also a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. After graduating from UCSB, Emma hopes to attend graduate school and receive an MFA in directing. To see what she's up to, check out her Instagram @__peache. Thanks for reading!
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