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Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain

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Expressing painful emotions is hard--yet it can actually improve our mental and physical health. This lucid, compassionate book has introduced tens of thousands of readers to expressive writing, a simple yet powerful self-help technique grounded in scientific research. Leading experts James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth describe how taking just a few minutes to write about deeply felt personal experiences or problems may help you:

*Heal old emotional wounds
*Feel a greater sense of well-being
*Decrease stress
*Improve relationships
*Boost your immune system

Vivid stories and examples yield compelling insights into secrets, self-disclosure, and the hidden price of silence. The third edition incorporates findings from hundreds of recent studies and includes practical exercises to help you try expressive writing for yourself. It features extensive new information on specific health benefits, as well as when the approach may not be helpful.

210 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1990

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About the author

James W. Pennebaker

26 books146 followers
James Pennebaker is an American social psychologist and husband of Ruth Pennebaker. He is the Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers. His research focuses on the relationship between natural language use, health, and social behavior, most recently "how everyday language reflects basic social and personality processes"

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 85 reviews
Profile Image for Heather Pagano.
456 reviews9 followers
November 13, 2016
A great psychology book focusing on practical ways to cope with a traumatic experience or big life change. I was looking for a book that would teach how to keep a daily journal- this is not that book. Here two researchers rigorously collate years of experiments, posit reasons for what they found, and offer suggestions and exercises for writing. I loved learning about their ideas: how illness and poor immune function can be caused by stress, how stress can be caused by holding in secret pain, how secret pain can be relieved by disclosure, and how writing can work as a viable alternative to disclosure when talking to a friend might have adverse social consequences. I also liked learning about how writing and language help us organize and create meaning out of the momentous events in our lives.
Profile Image for Simon Ri.
10 reviews42 followers
December 20, 2019
In my estimation articulating problems is highly underrated when it comes to solving that very. When complicated experiences are carefully put into words the manner in which they are represented in the brain changes. They move from the areas associated with stressful emotion demanding constant physical readiness to the areas associated with detailed comprehension and understanding. This makes articulate people less stressed and more informed about how to be successful now and in the future, which is the reason why we keep track of our past.
Profile Image for Scrapsandsass.
119 reviews12 followers
June 17, 2016
I've been fascinated by James Pennebaker's work for the past twenty years, so this book was a no-brainer for me.

This book shared a lot of information on why the authors first got involved in expressive writing and researching its benefits. There was a lot of explanation about the process and the methods they've used over the years. It was good to read about the progress being made in the area of health, wellness, and self-improvement, and how expressive writing can make an impact on those areas. With advances in technology and medicine, there has been a lot of updated information and more detailed research taking place. I also appreciated that they included some good information on writing and education. I think there has been a lack of focus on that with the new educational standards, and I hope that educators realized it is important.

As someone who has a life-changing chronic disorder (that includes pain and other physical symptoms), it was a great reminder that I should be writing several times a week in order to alleviate/reduce some symptoms and help to strengthen my immune system. I know there are times I definitely use sleeping or reading as escape from pain and discomfort, but if I switched to focused writing for 15-30 minutes a day, I should actually be able to feel better and not need the "escape" as often.

The only downside to this book (for me), was that I already know Pennebaker's work and how powerful expressive writing can be, and I've done a lot of research on expressive writing on my own. So there wasn't a lot of new information.

It is definitely food for thought, and I would encourage everyone to read it and learn more about how you can use expressive writing to reduce stress and help to feel better.
Profile Image for Keerit Kohli.
144 reviews2 followers
August 18, 2023
my dad made me read this because he thinks i am not in touch with my emotions little does he know i am a PISCES
Profile Image for Ray.
221 reviews4 followers
August 24, 2022
Tons of things to think about and incorporate. I love their honesty in that they were upfront about expressive writing not being a one-size-fits-all approach. It may read as dubious to someone wanting conclusive scientific efficacy, though, because they frequently underline that the results of studies can be mixed bags or have used limited measures, though maybe that is more in line with science's philosophy of "We strive to be relentless in finding ways we can be disproven, or ways which point to the insufficiency of our findings so we may continue testing."

It's better than a lot of self-help books which have this aura of selling you the magical solution to your problems, for every single individual who reads them, though this is, by no means, a purely self-help book; it has some self-help elements, but also emphasizes that they are concerned mainly with scientific studies which may simply support certain practices like expressive writing explicitly done in productive or beneficial ways, which they explain by the end of the book.

They do include a lot of warnings about certain kinds of writing which may be more harmful than helpful, which is much appreciated, because yes, you can become very self-absorbed and increasingly ruminative if you adopt a certain attitude or method of writing. On the other hand, it may lead you to important realizations and paths to solutions to problems you are struggling with. It's also great that they acknowledge how trauma affects everyone differently, and the various time intervals in which they may write about the trauma may or may not be helpful depending on the individual. I am skeptical in one of their assertions that some people have not experienced a single trauma in their lives, though--it's more probable that they simply have coped with it better or not been affected as much by it, which they also state. It also depends on your definition of trauma--theirs is very broad, however, so certainly, everyone has experienced some kind of trauma.

Definitely a helpful kind-of-sort-of self-help book, but if you're looking for tons of strategies and exercises, it's not really the best one for those. I'd say it's a good starting point, though, or if you want evidence-based confirmation that expressive writing can help, if you're that type of person (which I am, I guess! Obviously).
Profile Image for Justin.
657 reviews27 followers
June 18, 2015
Keeping things to ourselves creates stress whereas expressing them through talking or writing benefits our mental and physical health. Pennebaker's research explores how inhibition hurts us compared to confrontation which although painful at first can ultimately benefit us. His research has focused on self-disclosure through writing in an laboratory setting with physiological measures. That said, his research brings some fascinating insights, but a good amount of it remains correlational. He explores how different thinking styles affect our self-disclosure and coping, as well as the timeline of trauma coping. He talks about the value of writing, the social variables including who we disclose to and how we are affected as listeners. He discusses positive emotions such as love and how it relates to disclosure which affects us in a similar way to trauma. His writings of the inhibited personality, and the sociological approach to cities stimulates discussion, but is a bit limited. He then looks at confession in different contexts and how it can shape how we interpret our experiencs. And finally, the benefits of writing on well-being.
Overall, this was an englightening read, and reminds us to express ourselves.
Profile Image for Aurélie.
85 reviews17 followers
June 29, 2017
What a really interesting book that was! I started reading it because I wanted to be more informed on the benefits of writing in general. And I was surprisingly amazed. The main point of this book is that expressive writing and putting our thoughts into words is proved to reduce the stress, improve our health and our life and relationships in general. This is mainly true when dealing with traumas and major problems and even if it is not my current case, I am journaling every day since one month now and I can really see much change and improvement in my life. I truly believe that you open up by writing it down.

I really love reading about psychology in general and I was glad to discover how expressive writing came to life with J. Pennebaker and to know more about his work with Joshua Smyth on the subject.

"Holding back and not talking about an upsetting experience is bad in and of itself. A deeper problem is when individuals avoid talking, they fail to translate their thoughts and feelings into language. Without resolving their traumas, they continue to live with them and any negative aftereffects."
Profile Image for Lisajean.
222 reviews40 followers
December 22, 2020
I got a lot out of this book. In part, it convinced me that journaling will always be a key part of my classroom practice, as will free writes and process writes. Now, I'm well aware of the risk of turning to psychology books for insight into teaching, namely that I am not a psychologist, I'm not a therapist, and it would be inappropriate for me to try to take on that role for my students. However, as an English teacher, I do think it's helpful to have a nuanced understanding of the ways writing functions. Writing is a way of knowing, a way of forming concepts, and so any personal writing we do in class has the potential to not just express existing understandings of the self, but to actually shape that understanding. As a result, I appreciated that this book pushed me to think through the types of prompts I might give students. For example, writing about a specific personal event could take any of the following forms:

1. Letting it out: Write about an event with no self-editing. Anything goes.
2. Reflecting: How did you feel about the event? What does the event mean?
3. Cause and Effect: Step back from the event to analyze it - Why did it happen? Why did you feel the way you did? Why did the other people involved act as they did? How did it affect you and why did it affect you that way? What was the silver lining?
4. Third person: Talk to your younger self in third person. You may offer advice, consolation, explanation, forgiveness, or whatever else you'd like.
5. Best Possible Self: Write about your best possible self in a future where you have achieved everything you desired, after working hard for it. You may write about what you have achieved, how you achieved it, how you feel, or anything else.
6. Process: How has it been writing about this event? How have your feelings changed? Will it effect your actions? How do you think your experience compares to other people's?
7: Groups: In self-selected groups, you have the option to talk through how you're feeling right now or to share what you wrote. You are not obligated to talk at all if you don't want to.

My key takeaway from this book is that the most helpful element of expressive writing is that the very nature of writing involves making sense of an event, imposing meaning on it. We are primed to write about causes and effects, which can help with feelings of helplessness and randomness and can help find some value or lesson even in traumatic situations. That process of understanding can then make it easier to move on.

Again, I have no intention of asking students to recount traumatic events, but they do it anyway, in journals, in college essays, in free writes, so it helps to have an idea of effective follow-up questions and to think through structures that can promote healing rather than retraumatize writers.
Profile Image for Mina Lobo.
Author 2 books18 followers
January 28, 2019
I enjoyed this book, particularly the straightforward and matter-0f-fact tone of the authors. So many self-help books pump themselves up with hyperbolic enthusiasm and are sales-oriented, pushing the reader to authors' websites to become dependent on them and spend more money on their products. Not "Opening Up by Writing It Down"--the authors gave their background info on the subject, discussed trials and errors, and provided details from multiple studies to support their thesis. However, they didn't make exaggerated claims that their method was THE method and openly acknowledged that they didn't have all the answers and that their ideas wouldn't work for everyone in every circumstance. They came off as genuine to me and I felt I could trust whatever they had to share, even if they couldn't make any promises that this sharing would help me solve all my problems (which, of course, no one in good conscience can do). They provided some preliminary exercises which I found beneficial and sparked some unprescribed writing that also felt helpful. I feel like I'd have liked a few more exercises, or more information on variables of the expressive writing process. But that's a small criticism for a largely worthwhile read. If you're going through a rough patch, of any sort, it might prove helpful to you also, if you're ready (which, the authors note, may not be for some time after a traumatic event).
Profile Image for Tony Page.
Author 4 books8 followers
June 22, 2018
Fascinating evidence of the benefits of expressive writing for personal performance, health and well-being.
Profile Image for Rick Sam.
400 reviews95 followers
January 5, 2022
"Would you want to be of help to someone, who has problems?"

One way is to listen, make a person feel heard.
Ask them to be honest, write to you.

We do want to sort them out or be of help.

What I noticed is it, each person is different.

For some, a small event in their life, might not upset them.
For some, a small event in their life, might disrupt them.

This passage, summarizes the book:

How ?

1. Standard expressive writing
2. Cognitive processing
3. Exposure
4. Benefit finding
5. Best possible future self

“Standard” expressive writing: Deepest thoughts and feelings about a stressful or traumatic event. Write about the same or different topics over writing sessions.

Cognitive processing: Thoughts and feelings with an attempt to derive more understanding and insight (cognitive processing) regarding a traumatic or stressful event.

Exposure: Deepest thoughts and emotions about the same event across all writing sessions to promote emotional habituation/adaptation.

Benefit finding: Identify an event and then focus on the positive aspects of the experience; this might include a focus on how you have grown or changed as a person due to the event and how you might be better equipped to meet future challenges.

Best possible future self: Think about your life in the future and write about this life as if you have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals.

I'd recommend this to someone, who enjoys writing, reading, communicating, wants to help others.

Deus Vult,
Profile Image for S.E. Chandler.
Author 10 books11 followers
July 15, 2022
Eye opening! I couldn't stop talking about the science behind expressive writing to poor, unsuspecting bystanders. Stop what you're doing right now and go write for 15 minutes about your trauma. It'll change your life!
Profile Image for Anita.
654 reviews12 followers
April 15, 2020
The explanation for how to do expressive writing is short and clear. It is repeated a bit throughout the book. The bulk of the book is studies on what expressive writing can do and may not do. There are many studies given showing some excellent effects and also demonstrating that this is not the total answer in dealing with pain. I appreciated the truth in this book as opposed to simply hype. There are a few simple exercises to try. This is one aspect of writing that I was interested in. It turns out not to be the only way or purpose for writing. I'm happy to know about it now so that I can use it as appropriate. I wanted to read something to encourage me to pursue writing more now that I've developed a daily habit of writing. After reading and trying the Intensive Journal by Progoff, I've been looking for things a bit more simple. This is simple, but is only part of what I'm looking for. For a well-rounded discussion of the topic expressive writing of thoughts and feelings (both together) this is a great book.
Profile Image for Dottie Parish.
Author 1 book10 followers
March 2, 2013
James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., in his book, Opening Up, The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion, describes a study of unemployed men. The men who wrote about losing their jobs found new jobs much more quickly than the two control groups. Writing helped them vent anger, hurt and pain about their job loss. It enabled them to let go of painful experiences, and this in turn, helped them be effective in finding employment.

As a clinical social worker I know writing is helpful, Writing will help with any type of crisis or problem. If you're dealing with anger or resentment, write a letter to the person you're angry with, but don't send the letter. Sending an angry letter makes things worse. The point is to get your anger, hurt or pain out on paper. Include specific details when you write. This helps you understand what happened, and helps you let go of anger and hurt. Read the book and see www.Faithnotes-dottie.blogspot for more.
Profile Image for Eri.
56 reviews5 followers
January 17, 2008
Try experiment yourself by writing down anything that emerge from your mind, heart and soul during your hard times, sadness, dissapointment, heart break, down hearted...
Writing is the best therapy - as James' experiments have proved them - 'coz I did it too as part of healing my tumour in 2006-2007. Released all the stress, worries, wondering mind, doubtfulness, and many more.
To cure illness by expressing yourself in writing is the best treatment.
Profile Image for Bailey.
171 reviews25 followers
December 3, 2022
Not exactly what I was expecting. And a little triggering here and there.
Profile Image for Cole.
68 reviews1 follower
April 10, 2023
Some useful insights into writing and journalling for self-help/therapy etc.

A lot of filler though with some elements that I felt were pointless and not really on topic at all.
Profile Image for Archana Pai.
30 reviews
May 21, 2021
If someone is looking for inspiration to get into the habit of writing , this book would be a good place to start.
Profile Image for E.
773 reviews
April 4, 2021
This is a book where it's important to go in with the right set of expectations.

If you're reading this book to learn about how to write expressively (beyond generic instructions such as "really let it out, put down your deepest feelings"), this is not your book. It hints throughout that Chapter 10 will contain the instructions needed to do this, and then Chapter 10 ends with a whimper, not a bang, giving you nothing but aforementioned generic instructions.
If anyone has book suggestions for what does cover the topic of how, I would be grateful to hear them.

If you're reading this book to learn about the academic studies run to determine how expressive writing can help, or not accomplish anything at all, this is your book and it will be an absolute gold mine for you.

Sadly, I went in thinking it would be some of the latter and a good chunk of the former, and it was not. For what it is, it's a very thorough and well-written book, but sadly, not what I was looking for.
Profile Image for Beatriz.
312 reviews86 followers
February 23, 2020
Manual incrível sobre os benefícios da escrita (e da confissão ou conversa), mas que peca por demasiada informação repetida e estrutura pouco clara. Acho que se leria muito melhor se estivesse melhor sumarizado. Os primeiros e os últimos capítulos são os melhores, pela introdução sucinta e pelas conclusões resumidas e aplicáveis à prática terapêutica e ainda noutros contextos. As notas no final têm imensa informação de valor, assim como os exemplos pessoais/profissionais dos autores. Não vale a pena ler edições deste livro anteriores aos anos de 2010-..., porque os próprios autores referem várias vezes que já se efectuaram novos estudos e que se retiraram novas conclusões, entretanto, na investigação mais recente.

O estudo da "disclosure" é fascinante!
Profile Image for Corinne M Westphal.
20 reviews2 followers
February 11, 2019
I'm a firm believer in the power of journaling. I've found it helpful in my own personal development and working through difficult times and dilemmas as well as in that of my clients. Pennebaker provides the clinical research and evidence behind it while providing examples of interesting case studies.

This is an essential on my bookshelf of references. I've both the Kindle and the hardcopy versions.
Profile Image for Jodi McMaster.
102 reviews2 followers
March 9, 2013
Perhaps it was all the hype, but I was disappointed by this book. The research he cites is interesting, but it raised as many questions as it answered. I agree that for some of us, journaling is a healing and useful tool, but there are so many variables that were not explored that I thought the analysis and conclusions were facile and unconvincing.
Profile Image for Robyn.
100 reviews6 followers
October 9, 2016
Comprehensive and easily digestible overview on the research behind expressive writing. An easy read that prepares you to either engage in the practice of expressive writing, or use it with clients as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Very interesting, and enjoyably written!
Profile Image for Leonardo.
Author 1 book64 followers
Shelved as 'to-keep-reference'
September 6, 2018
Pennebaker began his research by studying the relationship between trauma, such as childhood sexual abuse, and later health problems. Trauma and stress are usually bad for people, and Pennebaker thought that self-disclosure—talking with friends or therapists—might help the body at
the same time that it helps the mind. One of his early hypotheses was that traumas that carry more shame, such as being raped (as opposed to a nonsexual assault) or losing a spouse to suicide (rather than to a car accident), would produce more illness because people are less likely to talk about such events with others. But the nature of the trauma turned out to be almost irrelevant. What mattered was what people did afterward: Those who talked with their friends or with a support group were largely spared the health-damaging effects of trauma.

The Happiness Hypothesis Pág.147
Profile Image for Robert Bogue.
Author 17 books10 followers
November 23, 2021
I’ve made no secret that reading on paper has become harder. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions is only available in paper format, but at some point, there’s such a critical mass of people referring to James W. Pennebaker’s work that you’ve got to break down and read it. I’m glad I did, because it gave me a way to reconcile the differences around Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) (also called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)) between those that believe it should always be used and those who are critical of its benefits (see Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology). It also helped me to organize my thinking around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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53 reviews
February 10, 2021
I wanted to love this book, as I had already read some of the author's research and found it really interesting. But it wasn't until the final chapter on writing and well-being that it felt that the content seemed to match the book's title. While I learned a lot about how inhibition might relate to the benefit of journaling, I felt the book missed the mark on talking about emotions outside of the 'trauma' category. There was a lot of referencing to the physiological effects in the research which didn't capture my attention. I'm not sure if I just didn't 100% enjoy it because it wasn't what I expected, or if it just didn't flow for me. Now reading Expressive Writing, and hoping that will be more what I am looking for.
Profile Image for Riikka Iivanainen.
58 reviews2 followers
December 27, 2022
A psychology book that doesn't claim to solve all your problems. It offers a thorough and practical look into how expressive writing can improve both physical and psychological health (and how and when it cannot).

I've intuitively been practicing this kind of writing occasionally and have found it to be helpful. It was interesting to learn the science behind it.

I highly recommend this to anyone interested in writing as well as free and accessible ways of processing difficult life experiences.
Profile Image for Corinne M Westphal.
20 reviews2 followers
February 11, 2019
I'm a firm believer in the power of journaling. I've found it helpful in my own personal development and working through difficult times and dilemmas as well as in that of my clients. Pennebaker provides the clinical research and evidence behind it while providing examples of interesting case studies.

This is an essential on my bookshelf of references. I've both the Kindle and the hardcopy versions.
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