Expressive Writing: Creating the Changes you Want
After each dream you play in Betwixt, we'll offer a little extra info about the theory you're engaging with. Here, in Dream One's extra bits, we'd like to introduce perhaps the most important tool at play in the game.
Expressive writing is a form of journaling that has been shown in countless scientific studies to have therapeutic benefit to rival talking therapy (see below for some stats).
Magic happens when you engage with your inner world from a place of curiosity rather than fear. All those horrible human tangles of anxiety, doubt, resentment and pain can unravel when pen meets paper (or when finger meets touchscreen) in the spirit of enquiry.
Although it seems counterintuitive, this can be particularly true for the less than positive ideas that run through your mind. When we write uncomfortable thoughts down, they tend to lose their emotional impact. It’s hard to explain the difference between the feeling of an idea that lurks in the shadows of your mind and one that gazes meekly up at you from a piece of paper or screen. It’s as if forming something like a negative self-belief into a complete sentence – with a capital letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end – both humanises and paralyses it.
What’s more, a little like getting a politician to answer a question directly, when your beliefs are forced to take off their stealth clothing, they’re infinitely easier to counter. You'll have the opportunity to experience this directly by engaging with the Mind Missions between the separate acts in Betwixt.
How to Write
In essence, expressive writing is communication at its most free. This practice pays no regard to writing conventions like spelling, grammar or punctuation. There is no character-limit nor preferred style. The only rule is that the words be authentic, emotional and, of course, expressive.
While writing, most people focus on specific events: trauma, heartbreak, conflict, failure, childhood memories. But what they write is less about these events than it is their response to them. The most effective expressive writing creates connections. It links happenings from the past and present with future projections. It explores the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that repeat over the course of our lives. This “big picture” approach helps to develop a wider web of self-understanding and a deeper awareness of the meaning that we can take from our struggles.
It’s not about finding The Answer, necessarily (“I do X because Y happened to me as a child”). It’s more about observing the associations made by the mind as they appear on the page. When we write in this way, we simply follow the stream of consciousness as it downloads. And, we do so with the intention of expanding self-awareness, rather than pigeonholing our experience. Curiosity is key.
People who engage in an ongoing practice of expressive writing learn how to catch themselves mid-panic, mid-outburst or while in the grip of a destructive habit. More importantly, they learn how to take a step back at those times. The awareness developed by the practice opens up valuable windows of opportunity, within which we can take different action. It’s as if a lightbulb flickers on and we find ourselves thinking, “Wait. This is the story that I always tell when things get tough. This is my pattern”.
Ready awareness of the scripts used by our inner critics is invaluable. Only when we know that something is a pattern, can we recognise that it likely isn’t an accurate reflection of the present-moment reality. Without this awareness, however, our limiting stories feel like truth each and every time they crop up. We need to know our monsters in order to know that they are made of fiction.
Over the past few decades, hundreds of studies have been published on the effects of expressive writing. The results are impressive and extensive. They indicate that writing about painful memories for as little as twenty minutes a day over a four-day period can improve physical and psychological wellbeing as much as working through the issues with a therapist. Here are the research highlights taken from Expressive Writing: Words That Heal by James W. Pennebaker and John F. Evans.
Considerable improvements have been shown in the physiological health of study participants, including a general enhancement of immunological functioning; improvements in lung function and joint mobility in asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients; higher white-blood-cell counts among AIDS patients; improvements in IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms; and improvements in cancer symptoms.
Across multiple studies, people who participated in expressive-writing processes reported feeling happier and less negative after taking part (it should be noted that this is a long-term effect because it’s normal to feel slightly down or drained immediately after writing about something emotional). Improvements of overall wellbeing and cognitive functioning have been registered, and depressive symptoms, rumination and anxiety have been shown to decrease.
Finally, behavioural changes such as improved grades in college, improved functioning of working memory (the ability to concentrate on complex tasks) and improved social functioning (participants were shown to talk more with others, laugh more easily, use more positive emotional words) have also been documented.
All in all, studies like these have shown journaling about the challenges of life to be a surprisingly effective tool for improving and maintaining a healthy body and mind. You’ll have various opportunities to reap the benefits of writing as you progress through Betwixt.