By Dimitra Didangelou, Psychologist, Author, MSc, Specialized in Therapeutic Writing *
“A word after a word after a word is power”
Margaret Atwood, Canadian writer
We will use both the terms “therapeutic” and “expressive” writing, which describe the “simultaneous participation in and observation of life and its journeys, traumas, lessons, quests, disappointments, joys and foibles” in a way that leads to understanding, insight, acceptance, and growth. Journal therapy describes the purposeful and intentional use of a cathartic, reflective, process or integrative writing to further therapeutic goals (Adams, 1999).
Sometimes it’s not enough just to open our diaries and write. According to psychotherapist and clinical journal therapist Kathleen Adams, “free writing is unboundaried, unstructured, open–ended, non-directed” (Adams, 1998). In some cases it is appropriate and can be a highly effective technique, but in some others, it can be overwhelming. When the writing has a structure and is being facilitated by an expert it’s more likely to be successful. Depending on the goal in each case, certain techniques are given.
According to Sandy Grason, writer and journal facilitator, writing is a window to whatever is important to someone. It can bring clarity in a very confusing world (Grason, 2005). It can be used as a therapy method or as a complementary tool to psychotherapy.
One of the basic goals of psychotherapy is to help people better understand their problems and their reactions to them (Rogers, 1980). Expressive writing can be very useful for this aim, because when someone writes about their experiences, they see them from a distance and change their point of view.
Dr. Ira Progoff is a pioneer in the field of therapeutic writing. His method is called “Intensive Journal”, in which he uses specific writing techniques. He believes that people who get through a difficult period in their life and experience physical or emotional pain, find more power, tenderness, sensitivity, capacity for insight and harmony within them than expected, when they use writing. When someone is working intensively on their life, they activate energies that they didn’t know existed within their soul and body (Progoff, 1992).
Dr. James Pennebaker, professor at the University of Texas, has conducted a lot of research about the benefits of emotional expression and how this relates to therapeutic writing. It seems that expressive writing helps people organize their thoughts and find a meaning in their traumatic experiences. One of his main conclusions is that the more one is finding meaning in life’s difficulties, the smoother the adaptation will be. Writing is a valuable tool for this process. Among the participants in his research, were aids and cancer patients, sexual abuse victims and veterans of the Vietnam War (Pennebaker, 2004).
In expressive writing there is no right or wrong. Facilitators encourage participants to free themselves and learn to write without the anxiety of criticism. They learn to accept their writings as a part of themselves and interpret them on their own. During this process, the paper becomes their mirror, reflecting their inner world. As Louise DeSalvo says: “And although writing can’t cure us (eradicate whatever it is we‘re suffering from), some studies suggest that it might prolong our lives. And it certainly can help us heal”.
According to studies, therapeutic writing can help us:
- Heal from physical or emotional pain
- Reduce stress
- Enhance the immune system
- Change mood
- Understand our past
- Recover from trauma
- Process our life experiences
- Understand and integrate our personal story
- Organize our life
- Deal with our social life
- Have better performance at work, school or studies
- Increase the possibilities of finding a job
Who benefits from expressive writing
Expressive writing can be used by anyone in any period of their lives. It can be used equally in quiet or more stressful days. It can be used by children, adolescents, adults or elderly people. It can also be used for addictions, aging, HIV/AIDS, anger, anxiety disorders, bipolar illness, depression, mania, chronic or life – threatening illness, co-dependency, dis-associative disorders, eating disorders, dream interpretation, dysfunctional families, family relationships, grief or loss, guilt or shame, incest or sexual abuse, psychosis, schizophrenia and thought disorders (Adams, 1998); also during life transitions and trauma recovery.
Additionally, it can be used for increasing self-esteem, raising self- awareness, listening to your inner voice, finding your authentic self, making an integrated personal story, increasing intuition, gaining wisdom and insight.
In moments of ecstasy, in moments of despair
the journal remains an impassive, silent friend,
forever ready to coach, to confront, to critique,
to console. Its potential as a tool
for holistic mental health
Selected testimonials from Dimitra Didangelou’s workshops and sessions:
Outstanding experience, which helps you to discover a new part of yourself.
Through expressive writing I gained breath and power. I learned to see situations and myself from a whole different perspective, more intrinsically and hopefully.
Freedom, revelation, catharsis. I felt like I got the pen down to my soul and then I imprinted it onto paper. And then, I faced the truth that finally was inside me. I saw, on the paper, me, in my most authentic form.
Th. K., Cyprus
It touches the soul and liberates emotions…
I liked the workshop very much, the leader was very helpful and the other participants were nice and respectful. The exercises helped me to unblock my mind and to understand better my thinking and feelings.
Adams, K. (1998). The Way of the Journal. Second edition. Baltimore, Maryland: The Sidran Institute Press.
Adams, K. (1999). Writing as therapy. Counseling & Human Development. Denver: Love Publishing.
DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a way of healing. Boston: Beacon Press.
Ferrari AJ, Charlson FJ, Norman RE, Patten SB, Freedman G, Murray CJ, et al. (2013) Burden of depressive disorders by country, sex, age, and year: findings from the global burden of disease study 2010. PLoS medicine.
Grason, S. (2005). Journalution: journaling to awaken your inner voice, heal your life, and manifest your dreams. 1st edition. Novato, California: New Wolrd Library.
Koopman, C., Ismailji, T., Holmes, D., Classen, C., Palesh, O., & Wales, T. (2005). The effects of expressive writing on pain, depression, and posttraumatic stress symptoms in partners of intimate violence. Journal of Health Psychology, 10(2), 211–221.
Kuruppuarachchi KALA, Wijeratne LT. (2004) Depression intervention in resource-poor regions. The British Journal of Psychiatry.
Pennebaker, J.W.. (2004). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Progoff, I. (1992). At a Journal Workshop. New York: Tarcher.
Rogers, C.R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Schneider, P. (2003). Writing alone and with others. USA: Oxford University Press
* Dimitra Didangelou is a psychologist MSc, science journalist and author. She’s the founder of “Expressing MySelf Institute”.
Her training includes Advanced Study in Therapeutic Writing (The Center for Journal Writing in Denver, CO, USA), a Master of Science Degree in Psychology and Mass Media, a Bachelor Degree in Psychology and a Certificate in Philosophical Counselling and Psychotherapy.
TEDx Speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNsHMEwNm2w
If you have any inquiries about expressive writing, you can contact Dimitra at: