“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
― Anne Frank

Mindfulness sometimes conjures up images of monks and nuns, seated with their eyes closed, in a deep state of contemplative, contented awareness.

The practice of mindfulness is often associated with meditation. Indeed, mindfulness meditation is a distinct form of meditation practice in its own right — and one that has scientifically-backed claims for effectively enhancing psychological health.

The term meditation, however, need not necessarily require that the individual be seated in the Lotus position, or engaged in some ritualistic chanting or counting breaths. Central to much of meditation practices over the ages is the shift, or change, in our mode of consciousness. In this sense, mindfulness meditation shifts that consciousness towards our present thoughts and emotions, and encourages non-judgemental and compassionate responses towards thoughts and emotions. There are other ways in which we can alter our state of consciousness and engage with our cognitive and emotional processes. One way to do this is by putting our fleeting experiences — our thoughts, feelings and emotions — down on paper.

Express yourself

More than two decades ago, the psychologist James Pennebaker examined the possible health benefits of expressive writing. He suggests that writing about our experiences, thoughts and feelings can be helpful in enhancing mental and physical health [1]. Indeed, long-term research on expressive writing shows that it aids people who have clinical mental health conditions, as well as those who generally experience everyday challenges [2], [3], [4]. The benefits of expressive writing are also observed when we write about intensely positive experiences and positive emotions.

In one study, participants who wrote about positive experiences displayed better physical and psychological outcomes than participants who wrote about neutral events [5]. Such positive effects were observed even when the participants engaged in expressive writing for just fifteen to twenty minutes, on three-to-five separate occasions. Why does such a simple act of writing out our emotional experiences, lead to such far-ranging and beneficial outcomes?

One reason for this may be that expressive writing encourages to ‘cognitively reappraise’ our given circumstances and challenges. Cognitive reappraisal involves a reassessment, and reevaluation of our circumstances, often resulting a more holistic and objective view of the challenges we face. Indeed, it’s a combination of both cognitive reappraisal and freely disclosing our emotions in a safe manner that leads to the best physical and psychological outcomes [6].

Connecting the dots

When we write and disclose our emotions freely, without fear of judgement, we also reappraise our circumstances. We use words such as ‘because’ that help us draw links between the events and our emotions more clearly. We are free to describe our emotions colourfully and even as metaphors, which in turn captures as accurately and personally how we feel. We use words such as ‘probably’, taking a step back from the absolutes (‘definitely’, ‘without a doubt’, ‘absolutely’) that frequently creep into our thoughts when we experience strong negative emotions [7].

Another reason behind the benefits of expressive writing may be that the practice encourages self-affirmation. When we write about our difficult and challenging situations, we may engage in patterns of thought that helps us protect our sense of integrity in the face of threat, which allows us to be more adaptable when we confront difficult situations [8]. Seen in this way, expressive writing can arguably be viewed as another form of mindfulness meditation — one in which we have the help of pens and paper (or even our computers) to assist us is being more deliberately contemplative of our emotional experiences.

Expressive writing can help us to cultivate a more balanced, mindful assessment of our emotional experiences. It may feel strange, or unusual at first, but give it a go and see how it works for you. You don’t need to write every day — why not begin with writing weekly, reflecting on the past week’s events and, of course, the emotions surrounding those events? Here are some tips when you do go down to practising expressive writing:

  • Don’t worry about the grammar or the formatting of what you write. Just express your emotions and experiences using the words, expressions, stories and descriptions that are most meaningful and relevant to you.
  • Reflect as you write. This should come to you automatically. Simply thinking of how to structure and express your experiences in writing is sufficient to becoming mindful of your thoughts and feelings, and will subsequently prompt a re-evaluation of the experience. Often, your expressive writing will throw up insights and new feelings about your life that you were previously unaware of.
  • Doodle. While doodling isn’t something that’s usually associated with expressive writing, you can express your emotions and emotional events through drawings, symbols, or simple doodles that complement your narratives. Art therapy research, for instance, shows that creating art is, by itself, an effective way to lower anxiety and unpleasant moods [9]. If doodling is your thing, try it out and see if it can help to enrich your writing by helping to unlock a deeper understanding of the thoughts and feelings you experience in the moment.

References

[1] Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55(10), 1243-1254.

[2] Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2007). Expressive writing, emotional upheavals, and health. Handbook of Health Psychology, 263-284.

[3] Gortner, E. M., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior Therapy, 37(3), 292-303.

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

[5] Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2004). The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences. Journal of Research in Personality, 38(2), 150-163.

[6] Lu, Q., & Stanton, A. L. (2010). How benefits of expressive writing vary as a function of writing instructions, ethnicity and ambivalence over emotional expression. Psychology and Health, 25(6), 669-684.

[7] Lepore, S. J., & Greenberg, M. A. (2002). Mending broken hearts: Effects of expressive writing on mood, cognitive processing, social adjustment and health following a relationship breakup. Psychology and Health, 17(5), 547-560.

[8] Creswell, J. D., Lam, S., Stanton, A. L., Taylor, S. E., Bower, J. E., & Sherman, D. K. (2007). Does self-affirmation, cognitive processing, or discovery of meaning explain cancer-related health benefits of expressive writing?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(2), 238-250.

[9] Bell, C. E., & Robbins, S. J. (2007). Effect of art production on negative mood: A randomized, controlled trial. Art Therapy, 24(2), 71-75.