Dr. James Pennebaker
American Social Psychologist
It’s an enormous honor to welcome Dr. James Pennebaker back to our podcast. Affectionately known as the “father of expressive writing,” Dr. Pennebaker is a pioneer in the field of research that examines the profound benefits of expressive writing.
Dr. Pennbaker is a Regents Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts and Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.He is a social psychologist and the author of hundreds of articles and many books including The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us and Opening Up by Writing It Down.
You can hear our conversation or read highlights of the interview below.
Unleashing the Power of Expressive Writing, with James Pennebaker
On the back of Dr. Pennebaker’s guided journal, Writing to Heal, he observes the power of expressive writing. “The simple act of expressing your thoughts and feelings about emotionally challenging experiences on paper is proven to speed your recovery and improve your mental and physic health. Expressive writing will leave you with a stronger sense of value in the world and the ability to accept that life can be good even when it is sometimes bad.”
With an evident sense of humor, Dr. Pennebaker tells us about his first experience with expressive writing. Early on in his marriage, tension would sometimes rise. During a rough patch, Dr. Pennebaker retreated into his bedroom where he wrote down his feelings. The whole process took less than 15 minutes. Emerging from his room lighter, he had a fresh perspective he promptly shared with his wife. The act of writing down strong feelings provided much needed clarity and he was surprised by the power of the experience. Although this writing session marked a turning point, it would be several more years before Dr. Pennebaker formally began research on the benefits of expressive writing.
“The simple act of expressing your thoughts and feelings about emotionally challenging experiences on paper is proven to speed your recovery and improve your mental and physic health. Expressive writing will leave you with a stronger sense of value in the world and the ability to accept that life can be good even when it is sometimes bad.”
The Benefits of Expressive Writing
Dr. Pennebaker’s research spans decades, and many other prominent researchers have followed in his footsteps to prove the benefits of expressive writing. Positive outcomes include:
- Faster recovery from surgeries
- Mood regulation
- Improved sleep
- New insight that facilitates effective problem solving
How Expressive Writing Works
Dr. Pennebaker’s approach is pragmatic. He observes that journaling is not magic nor is it a panacea that can cure all of our problems. Rather, he describes it is an action that provides time to stop, pull back, and assess a problem from a different vantage point. “Expressive writing helps us organize our lives and put things together in ways we have not thought about before.” He notes that upheavals no longer appear as significant when we see them on paper.
How to Get Started with Expressive Writing
Dr. Pennebaker reassures us that there is no wrong way to approach expressive writing. For many years, he suggested people write for 3-4 days for 15 minutes at a time about a single issue that needed resolution. Over time, his research shows that similar goals can be accomplished in fewer days for some and that others might need more time. He encourages us to be our own scientist and to figure out what works best and do it.
Tips to get your started:
- Focus on a single issue that’s bothering you.
- Write about that one issue for brief stretches of time each day. This is likely to take anywhere from 1-5 days. Stop writing when the issue no longer troubles you.
- Experiment with a variety of methods. Typing, handwriting, using your non-dominant hand are all worthwhile methods to explore.
- Avoid the temptation to ruminate. If after five days you are still rehashing the same issue, give yourself permission to try something new like exercise, yoga, or meditation. Expressive writing can only succeed if it’s moving you toward a new way of thinking. This technique is not about dumping all our feelings onto a page. Rather it’s about taking a single issue and growing our understanding of the feelings it brings up so that we can work toward positive change.
Other Therapeutic Forms of Expression
We were curious to know Dr. Pennebaker’s thoughts on other therapeutic forms of expression and wondered how they might work in conjunction with journaling.
Dr. Pennebaker spoke of research done under his guidance by a dance therapist. She wondered if expressive dance might yield similar outcomes as expressive writing. Her dissertation findings were interesting.
She established 3 groups. The first group use expressive movement. The second group used expressive movement and writing. The third group did only exercise. Groups 1 and 2 reported their experiences to be positive, but only members of group 2 reported long-term benefits. Dr. Pennebaker’s student concluded that movement gets us in touch with deeper feelings and experiences and words help us to solidify longer term change. Art therapy works similarly in that someone is given materials to shape as they wish and then has an opportunity to discuss the process and the issues that arose.
Your Action Plan
- Read Dr. Pennebaker’s work including books, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us and Opening Up by Writing it Down
- Listen to my conversation with Dr. Pennebaker.
- Give expressive writing a try. Experiment with different methods.
If you found this conversation helpful, you might also enjoy our conversation with Deborah Ross in which we discuss journaling’s effects on the brain.