Disclosive Writing

Difficult, embarrassing, or traumatic events from our past can have ripple effects in our present. Writing about such events can help you to deal with them.

Short version

Write about difficult, stressful, or traumatic events from you past for 15-20 minutes, on three occasions. This can help you process and deal with difficult memories.

Benefits

  • Reduced symptoms of psychological disturbances, like stress and depression
  • Improved physical health such lower blood pressure, improved lung function, and improved liver function (probably linked to the reduction in stress)
  • Better mood
  • Better mental performance such as memory (again, this is probably linked to the reduction in stress – you’re removing a deficit to your memory, rather than creating an improvement to it).

Description

First off, if you have traumatic experiences from your past that you feel like you need to process, that’s best done under the guidance of a mental health professional – so if that’s the case in your situation, seek out a psychologist or counsellor to help you with this.

OK with that said, let’s get on to the exercise. Disclosive writing, sometimes called expressive writing, involves writing about a negative or distressing event from your past.

Such events can stay with us for a long time. If the mind is an ocean, traumatic events can be like a storm, far out to sea. Sometimes they have no bearing on your life, or maybe cause just minor ripples and waves that reach the shore. But sometimes the storm picks up, and can cause tidal waves.

However, it doesn’t have to be a serious event that triggers such ripples and waves. Have you ever been lying in bed, when you suddenly remember that time you embarrassed yourself all those years ago? Anxiety and shame can sometimes swell up over less serious things.

There are differences between people on why this happens. Some people are just more susceptible to these storms, even from relatively minor events. But another factor is how people process these past events.

The way we think about past events, the way we talk about them, who we talk about them to (and how they respond to us) can influence whether we’re likely to experience such storms in the future. Some people – either through luck, habits, or training – are able to process the past in a way that leads to good weather and calming waves.

Disclosive writing is one such way – and there is a huge body of research suggesting that it works.

How to do it

  1. Get a pen and paper, or load up whatever program you prefer to write with.
  2. Think of an event from your past that was difficult for you in some way, something you don’t feel like you’ve really come to terms with.
  3. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes.
  4. Start writing about the event. Don’t worry about structure or style, just let the words flow. There are no rules – just write whatever you feel. That could be a description of events, how it impacted you or people around you, how you felt then and now – whatever feels right to you. Try to express your deepest feelings and thoughts about this. You could use a password-protected file to keep your work secure, if that would make you more comfortable.
  5. Keep writing until the timer finishes.

Schedule

Most of the studies on disclosive writing suggest you do this 3-4 times over the course of a week or so.

You can do more if you feel you are still benefiting – or less, if you feel like the exercise is bringing up strong emotions (again, seek out a professional to help you if that’s the case).

You can write about the same event each time, or a different one.

Why it works

When a memory exists just in your mind, it’s very cloudy, foggy thing – especially a memory you don’t want to re-live.

When you get it down on paper, you’re giving it a structure – a narrative. You’re getting a clear idea of what happened, and how it affected you. This structure makes the event easier for your mind to process.

Several studies have shown that when people use more “insight” terms in their disclosive writing (words like realise, or understand), or more “causal” terms (words like because, due to, reason, owing to), they get better outcomes. So it seems like the exercise helps you make sense of things, and that sense-making is what helps.

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