Even as we inoculate our bodies and seemingly move out of the pandemic, psychologically we are still moving through it. We owe it to ourselves — and our coworkers — to make space for processing this individual and collective trauma. A recent op-ed in the New York Times Sunday Review affirms what I, as a writer and professor of writing, have witnessed repeatedly, up close: expressive writing can heal us.
A certain kind of guided, detailed writing can not only help us process what we’ve been through and assist us as we envision a path forward; it can lower our blood pressure, strengthen our immune systems, and increase our general well-being. Expressive writing can result in a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression; improve our sleep and performance; and bring us greater focus and clarity.
These effects of writing as a tool for healing are well documented. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the impact of a certain kind of writing on mental health in 1986. Since then, over 200 research studies have reported that “emotional writing” can improve people’s physical and emotional health. In classic studies, subjects who wrote about personal upheavals for 15 minutes a day over three or four days visited doctors for health concerns less frequently and reported greater psychological well-being. According to a 2019 study, a six-week writing intervention increases resilience, and decreases depressive symptoms, perceived stress, and rumination among those reporting trauma in the past year. Thirty-five percent of the participants who began the program with indicators of likely clinical depression ended the program no longer meeting this criterion.
Why does a writing intervention work? While it may seem counterintuitive that writing about negative experiences has a positive effect, some have posited that narrating the story of a past negative event or an ongoing anxiety “frees up” cognitive resources. Research suggests that trauma damages brain tissue, but that when people translate their emotional experience into words, they may be changing the way it is organized in the brain.
This matters, both personally and professionally. In a moment still permeated with epic stress and loss, we need to call in all possible supports. Mental health researchers document “significant” mental health strains among employees at every level within organizations and across industries, increased anxiety and depression being the most prevalent. Depression among adults has increased three-fold since the pandemic began.
In the face of recession and racial and economic disparities, some are “disincentivized to speak openly and honestly about their stress and frustration” out of fear — or guilt — according to Ashley Whillans, a behavioral psychologist at Harvard Business School who recently surveyed 44,000 remote workers in 44 U.S. states and 88 countries to study how the pandemic is affecting workplace attitudes and behaviors. Others cope by adopting a relativism approach, comparing themselves to people who seem to be worse off. We know the virus’s impact has varied physically, socially, and economically, with Black and Brown communities having suffered disproportionately and working mothers taking a particular hit in stress and mental load. Those who’ve suffered profoundly — whether they’ve lost income, loved ones, well-being — may not wish to chat about it casually with coworkers for fear that those who didn’t experience that level of loss and are now rushing to parties and vacations can’t relate.
But what may be difficult to express out loud can be readily given voice through writing.
No matter what boat we’ve oared on this uneven sea, to avoid processing what we’ve been through is to minimize the impact of one of the most profound global crises of our lives. Healing is essential to our collective wellness, and expressive writing has already proven to be a tool for enhancing well-being in teachers and other full-time workers. According to a July 2020 preprint of a study by researchers Emily Round, Mark Wetherell, Vicki Elsey, and Michael A. Smith, a course of “positive expressive writing,” meaning writing specifically about intensely positive experiences over three consecutive days, not only reduced “state anxiety” immediately post-writing but improved work-related well-being and job satisfaction four weeks later. Researchers call for further work on the effects of expressive writing on organizational outcomes, suggesting that writing might even enhance work quality and creativity in the workplace.
“Creativity is a basic human response to trauma and a natural emergency defense system,” writes Louise DeSalvo in Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, a book that famously draws on the myriad scientific studies about the efficacy of using writing as a restorative tool. The science is grounded. So, what does this look like in practice, and how can you put this powerful tool into effect?
By Deborah Siegel-Acevedo
About the authors: Deborah Siegel-Acevedo is an author, TEDx speaker, and founder of Bold Voice Collaborative, an organization fostering growth, resilience, and community through storytelling for individuals and organizations.