Expressive writing is not just diary writing or journaling. It is a technique that helps people deal with emotional upheavals of the past. Expressive writing is like self-help therapy with strong scientific evidence to support it. One team that has put in decades of research on this topic is Dr. James Pennebaker and Dr Joshua Smyth. Together they co-authored a fantastic book called 'Opening Up by Writing It Down' which is ram packed with examples on the benefits of expressive writing. One particular chapter talks about how people can have a traumatic experience and how those thoughts become intrusive and recurring.  However, by writing or confessing about the event the intrusive rumination stopped and it allowed people to relax again.  By putting their thoughts and images into words, it helps to degrade some of the emotional sting from the past event. This phenomenon also is exemplified in a study at UCLA about spider phobias and disclosure. The result was that people who were 'deathly afraid of spiders and expressed those fears when exposed to a real spider were able to physically move closer to the spider than those who merely looked at the spider.'  This protective benefit of translating fears into words is known as 'affect labeling' which is putting negative emotions into words which creates a blunting effect on the emotion. One portion of the book talks about how keeping secrets can have a negative impact on health and how talking about the secret upheaval provided relief. Here are a few points mentioned about keeping secrets, disclosing and it's effect on health.

Keeping Secrets is Physical Work

Keeping secrets from others means that we must consciously restrain, hold back, or in some way exert effort to not think, feel or behave in ways that reveals the secret.  This is like using willpower all day to overcome a bad habit. This becomes exhausting after awhile and can result in additional stress.

Secrets Can Produce Short-Term Biological Changes and Influence Long Term Health

Over time, the psychological labour involved in keeping secrets serves as a cumulative stressor on the body and this increases the likelihood of illness and other stress related physical and mental problems.  'Actively holding back from talking about important topics is one of the many general stressors that affect the mind and body.'

Secrets Hurt Our Thinking Abilities

We can't think properly when actively holding a secret  because we have to organize our thinking and speaking around the secret. 'Major life experiences that are withheld from others are likely to surface in the forms of anxiety, ruminations, disturbing dreams, and other thought disturbances.'  The human mind tries to make sense of things and so when we are trying to understand something we might end up obsessing over it in an attempt to have the problem sorted.  By obsessing over the secret there are less mental resources to think about other things.  This partly explains why there are frequent memory problems and attention problems with people who are under stress.

Disclosure Reduces the Effects of Secrets

The science has shown that 'the act of disclosing trauma reduces the physiological work of secrets.'  The additional benefit of this finding is that over time, by continuing to confront and progressively resolve our emotional upheavals, there will be a lowering of our overall stress level.

Disclosure Forces a Rethinking of Events.

Talking or writing about a secret turns the experience into language and it helps us understand and assimilate the event.  From talking or writing, those traumatic memories get put into an order with a timeline that has a beginning, middle and end.  This type of resorting of the events helps to put it into a much more psychological accepting perspective.

The other chapters in the book go into more detail about to the benefits of writing which includes how writing can help us secure a healthier happier future,  getting past obsessions, insomnia, anxiety, depression, clearing the mind and dealing with chronic health problems to name a few.  If you can't afford a therapist or would prefer to do your own self healing for emotional pain, you might want to try the low technology available in the form of pen and paper.

Audio books are also available (affiliate link) :


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